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Death Notwithstanding

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She's – so small. Lou fits in both Sam's palms, a warm, fragile thing, so much more breakable now that she's outside her bullet proof shelter. Lou is – she is… so, so small. The most fragile, most breakable thing he's ever held. If he lets go of her for one moment, she's going to die.

And she's cold. He can feel it almost inside his own skin – the chill creeping into her small body, into her tiny limbs and fingers and toes, how small they are, how badly they hold onto warmth. She wrings her little hands and then curls her fingers in, writhing a little in his palms, and the happy look on her precious face gives in to discomfort and confusion. Lou whimpers and Sam realises, in hindsight, that he's been holding his breath – and she's going to cry.

"Hey, hey, sh-sh-sh, it's okay, it's okay," Sam says quickly, as reality catches up with him in a rush of cold air and he realises – she's an infant, younger than an infant, a premature basically and she's naked, and there is no heating in the Incinerator. Lou isn't inside a pod anymore, protected by its well maintained biosphere with its regulated temperature and everything – she's out, and she's fragile.

And he has nothing to put her into, nothing to put on her, no clothes, no – he doesn't even have a scarf

"It's okay, it's okay," Sam says, looking around, but that's stupid – there's nothing in the Incinerator, nothing but concrete and death and – nothing –

Lou lets out a cry, piercingly loud now that she's not being muffled by amniotic fluids and bullet-proof casing – it echoes like a gunshot.

Smothering a curse, Sam rips open his jumpsuit front, wringing the straps of his harness off to get the suit open. His shirt underneath is skin tight, synthetic and timefall proof – which makes it anything but comfortable. So, balancing between holding her and stripping, he gets rid of it until his torso is bare, and he can hold her against it, warm against bare skin.

Lou whimpers, the Quipu she's still holding scratching across Sam's skin as she flails with surprise, but lays her cheek on his chest – seeking warmth.

"There you go, shh-shh, it's okay, it's okay, I'll keep you warm," Sam babbles, taking the Quipu from her hand and shoving it into his pocket. At first going to close the jumpsuit over her to keep her warm that way, trapped against his chest under his clothes – but no, that wouldn't work, she'd slip down with nothing supporting her, and she's so small and fragile, he can't just hook her in and expect her to stick anymore, he needs to be holding her

It's an awkward move, to keep one bare arm around her with a hand holding the back of her head, holding her to his chest, while using the other hand to zip up the suit over his arm and her, trapping both under the timefall proof cloth and leaving him with one usable hand, and no real way to pull on his cargo harness.

Lou mumbles, her little face just visible past his collar, and sticks her thumb in her mouth.

Worth it, Sam decides, and leaves the cargo harness there, on the incinerator floor with her broken pod and his burned cuffs – his broken bonds.


 

DOOMS does funny things to your head. Sam's always known it, though it's harder and harder to tell where the line lies these days – when it's just that he's being a generally surly bastard with trust issues, or if it's some psychological thing caused by his condition, paranoid delusion caused Chiral Contamination.

Either way, he decides he can't go back to Bridges.

For as long as he's been part of Bridges, they had been trying to get rid of Lou, to dispose of her as a broken, malfunctioning equipment. And sure, Sam knows why BBs are the way they are, and why they are treated the way they are – Death Stranding left them all fucked up in the head in a way that made it all almost make sense. But, fuck… Lou was never anything but a baby. And now she's his baby, and not just a Bridge Baby. She's his.

And he's not risking her life with Bridges. Not when he went against executive orders to dispose of her – twice now, really. Knowing his history and hers… there's probably something there to study, too, now that she's out and alive despite all the odds. Something might be going on, something they could figure out about BBs and Death Stranding and probably repatriates too, just by dissecting her. Who knows what her blood and body fluids could do, considering the stuff his does.

He's not taking that risk. He's not going back to Bridges. And he can't run deliveries with her anymore, either. No to Bridges, and no to being porter.

"Just Sam, now," Sam murmurs to Lou. And just Sam doesn't know what to do. He knows what he wants to do, for once that's real damn clear, but where and when and how

For the last who-the-fuck-knows-how-long he's been in so deep with Bridges that everything he has ties back to them. His tech, his connections – that he has connections at all, really, is all because of Bridges. In bringing people together under the umbrella of the country-wide chiral network in order to save them all or whatever, he'd tied it all back to Bridges, too, to the UCA. In light of that…

Where the hell can he even go, where the chiral network with all the ties that bind won't reach?

Sam runs his free hand over the bulge made in the front of his suit by his arm and by Lou – who is snuffling quiet breaths against his sternum, limply asleep against him. She weighs almost nothing, but she's still the heaviest burden he'd borne. And she is… She's going to need things. Babies need things.

Fuck, there was time he knew something about this. About babies. He'd – they'd been expecting, he'd…

Sam bows his head and then shakes it. Long gone, that. Whatever.

There's only so many things he can do here, he just has to pick and choose. Lou needs things he can't provide without help – fine. Can't go to Bridges out of fear of bringing righteous wrath of Die-Hardman on him, fine. That leaves one and half options. Or, one, really. He's not turning to fucking Mules for help.

There's one prepper in the area, not even that far away, who Sam thinks appreciates him enough to not sell him out to Bridges instantly. Maybe it would do.

And if not then… fuck. Sam doesn't know what then.

All there's left to do is try.


 

It's raining, when he makes it through the mountain valleys, from the Incinerator to the side of the ridge, where the Ludens Fan has made his hideout. There's a new Watchtower near it and the lights are on, so it looks like the guy is still around, and maybe even getting out. Or else, other porters are moving in the area more – people have been going out more, despite everything.

They brought America together again, or whatever the fuck it was they did, but that doesn't actually make BTs less of a threat. Timefall still falls, and voidouts are still a thing. What happened didn't… didn't stop things, just stalled them, and definitely not infinitely. But people, they feel things are better. They feel braver.

They're getting stupider.

There's no one outside when Sam limps his way to the entrance of the shelter and out of the rain. The shelter doesn't react, there's no welcoming AI voice identifying him with Bridges or Fragile Express ID, he has neither of them now – the place is completely quiet. It's kind of eerie.

The terminal doesn't raise for him either.

"Damn it," Sam mutters, looking around in the completely blank and inactive entrance and then turns to the door, leading in. He's spent a night or two here with the guy, he can't remember – it was weird, but it was warm and dry and he got a hot meal and everything. Ludens Fan seemed – cool with it.

"Hey," Sam calls and then bangs his fist on the door. "Hey, Ludens – it's Sam. Hey, anyone in?"

Lou makes a noise against his chest, waking up and kicking him in the belly scar – maybe it's a lingering connection or maybe he just can tell by her voice, but she feels cranky.

"Hey, Ludens Fan!" Sam calls, rocking Lou awkwardly, and bangs his fist on the metal door again. "It's Sam – I brought you shit – come on, open up!"

It's a moment before there's a reaction, and a hologram pops up by the still slotted-in terminal. "What – Sam!" the guy says, whirling around. "What are you – the system didn't register you. Where did you come from, man?"

"Outside, and it's raining buckets," Sam says, impatient and awkward. He hates dealing with people in the best of times, and this is not the best of times. Having to ask for help, too… "I need to hunker down for the night, can you –"

"Oh, yeah, for sure, man," Ludens Fan says, still seeming baffled, and waves his hand. "Come on in – and don't mind the mess, I've been, ah –"

Sam ignores whatever he was saying and steps in, out of the cold and into the more hospitable temperatures inside. Lou is making a sort of distressed keening noise now, wringing her arms and legs at his chest, and Sam just knows she's going to start crying any moment. Inside would be better than out.

The shelter door closes automatically while in the corridor inside lights turn on. The whole corridor is a mess of boxes and cargo containers – Ludens Fan has to jump over some of them, when he comes to greet Sam.

"Sorry, sorry – I've been ordering more stuff, with porters travelling more between Capital and Port Knot," the guy says, "Wasn't exactly expecting company – and shouldn't you be in the Capital, anyway, with the Inauguration and everything –"

And that's when Lou lets out her first cry – and a moment later Sam feels – something run down the inside of his suit. Ah. Shit.

Ludens Fan freezes with surprise and Sam hesitates between awkwardly ignoring what's happening and dealing with it before deciding that, fuck it, Lou is more important. "Can I use the shower?" he asks.

"Y-yeah, man, of course," Ludens Fan says, looking between him and the crying, flailing lump of his chest. "Um – is, is that a – that's a –"

"Yeah," Sam says. "I'll – explain. After shower," he says, turning to see if he could find the thing, and then hesitating. "Can you – not tell anyone?" he asks. "Don't send messages about me, to anyone. Okay?"

"Okay?" Ludens Fan says. "I mean, yeah, for sure man, not a word. Owe you that much at least, for the stuff you've gotten me – but Sam, man, that's a baby, right?"

"Yeah," Sam says again. "Shower?"

"Yeah," Ludens Fan agrees and points. "Thataway."

Sam goes. The feeling trickling down his belly is bad enough that he doesn't even care to check if Ludens Fan's shower has more or less privilege than the Bridges one – he just wants to clean up and see what's wrong with Lou.

Lou is full on wailing by the time Sam manages to strip enough to see what it was dunning down his stomach. It's probably shit, though it doesn't really look the part. "The fuck, Lou?" he murmurs and then, like a memory of a dream, recalls. Lou's never done a shit. Or a piss. This is the first. Because technically, Lou was just born. She hasn't eaten or drank anything. "Right."

Lou wails on as Sam struggles out of his jumpsuit and kicks his boots off – getting into the shower doesn't calm her down much, at first, she just cries harder. But she's also a mess and that's not so good, so Sam braves through it enough to get them both clean – by which time she goes number one on him, too. "Seriously?" Sam mutters, holding her against his chest with one hand and rinsing her off with the other. "Well, I guess better in a shower than in my clothing. Gotta get a diaper for you, Lou."

It's almost a joke, except… it isn't. Babies do need diapers. Diapers are for babies. Shit.

"Shit," Sam says out loud and then, as Lou's wretched wailing starts quieting down to tired whining and grumbling, he falls to sit on the bottom of the shower. "Shit," Sam says again, and looks down at her. "Lou, I got no idea what I'm doing."

She looks at him with that look that knows him and trusts him, and Sam feels a moment of utter abject horror at the thought that she really thinks he's got this, that she can trust him with everything. With her life.

"Fuck," Sam murmurs shakily, closing both arms around her, and for a moment he just sits there, under the downpour of warm water. She's so small, she feels like nothing against his chest, she's so light, so tiny – 28 weeks, wasn't it? When she was in the pod it was so easy, he just had to carry her, make sure nothing damaged the pod, occasionally soothe her, it was easy. Now, now she's got bodily functions going on, and there's no more pod to protect her. Now there's just him, and he's probably already fucking up. Shit, shit, shit…

Lou makes a noise, quizzical, and Sam tilts his head up to let the shower wash his face clean before looking down. She's got water running over her, and her thumb is in her mouth again. She's still looking at him, eyes huge and so damn smart, and still so trusting.

Sam opens his mouth, not sure what to say but thinking he has to say something to her, to tell her that he will try not to fuck this up but he's not sure he can't – when there's a knock on the door.

"I, ah, I got you some towels here?" Ludens Fan says through the door. "The airdryer is busted up, sorry, and probably not good for a baby anyway. I would've gotten, like, baby clothes and diapers, didn't look like you came in with much, but I wasn't sure about the size –"

Sam wipes his hand under his nose and then goes to stand up. "Just get the smallest you can print," he says roughly and then, awkwardly, adds, "Thanks."

"No problem, man," Ludens Fan says, sounding a little relieved. "I'll just leave these here and see what I can get out of the printer – and maybe some, like, formula?"

Formula? Sam blinks, confused. "I'm sorry?"

"Or did you bring some with?" Ludens Fan asks through the door. When Sam doesn't answer, he adds, slowly. "For the kid. Food?"

"I – yeah. No, I didn't bring any. Make some, yeah, if you can. Thanks," Sam says, his shoulders slumping. The fuck is formula? "Thanks. Again."

"No problem, really. Take your time," the guy says. "I'll be in the kitchen."

Sam nods, despite the fact that the guy can't see it, and waits until he hears the man's steps leading away before going to grab the towels. Lou makes a discontent noise as he towels her off, making him to go about it gentler and gentler until he finally just wraps her up in the towel and holds her, which she seems to prefer. "There we go," Sam murmurs. "That's not so bad, yeah?"

Lou coos in agreement, and lays her head to his chest again, so… that's good.

His jumpsuit is in baby shit, so Sam makes the risky decision of trusting Ludens Fan's washer with it, before slipping on his travel worn boots and wrapping a towel around his waist. It's not the most dignified way of going about but… better than covered in baby shit.

"Sorry," Sam says to Ludens Fan, after finding his way to the kitchen. "Lou did a number two on me. Had to clean it off."

"No problem, man," Ludens Fan says, turning around, and then drops the bottle he is holding, shouting "Holy fucking shit!"

Sam, shifts his footing awkwardly, coughing. On the floor, the bottle rolls away, unbroken – plastic, it looks like.

"Shit, sorry – oh man, that's – wow," Ludens Fan babbles awkwardly, fiddling with his hands and then turning away. "I mean I knew being a porter was something else, but damn. Sorry – um, I got you some stuff."

He had. There's a handful of freshly printed packages on the ceramic kitchen table, sitting amidst various statues, figurines and what looks like some sort of painting kit which had been pushed aside to make room for them. Around the table the kitchen is a mess – Sam's remembering it now, it had been that way the last time too. Mess of posters and figurines and stuff, with books and whatnot strewn about. Ludens Fan spent the whole night babbling about some book or something, Sam can't really remember the details.

Preppers. They're all their own breed. And isn't this a turn of events – parcels for him, rather than the opposite.

"Thanks," Sam says, gruff, and steps forward to check them. They're familiar in that way chiral-printed equipment look like fresh off the printer, but they're also like nothing Sam's ever printed. There's a mostly resin printed clear package of clothes, it looks like – tiny little generic baby clothing, all of them grey. Another is a package with print of Nursery Essentials Package No. 1 written on the frame. It's full of tightly packed little cloth squares, with four canisters of – something on the side. The last is a case of bottles with white stuff in them – it looks like a case of beer from the Timefarm, but definitely isn't.

Sam has the weirdest déjà vu about all of it. Like he knows all of it, but doesn't at the same time.

Ludens Fan looks between him and the packages and then coughs. "Um, there's diapers, clothes, food – did, did you need something else? If the kid needs medicine, man, I'm sorry, I can't print that,"

"No, this – this is fine," Sam says and hopes it is. "Where can I –"

"Oh, right, right – the bed in the guest room is clean, you can use that," Ludens Fan offers.

Sam nods and goes, figuring that there's nothing to it but to figure it out. It all looks like Bridges issued stuff, which should make things easy, anyway – Bridges build their stuff absolutely idiot proof. And that's what Sam feels like, right now – like an idiot.

Lou makes a face at him as he lays her in her towel cocoon on the bed, but she seems as curious about the packages as he is, turning to look as Sam sits down to check them over. And, thankfully, there's guides on the packages, explaining how to use everything in them. You don't even need to know how to read to figure out how to use the thing – there's cartoony pictures to go along with the explanations.

Sam looks over the guide on how to change diapers, how to check for diaper rash, how to apply powder to prevent it, all of it, before turning to Lou. "I think we can figure this out."

She coos in agreement, and then endures his fumbling about with mostly curious expression, watching him and then giggling as Sam tugs her legs this way and that to get the diaper on. It's the size XS according to the package, and it's still so big that he has to improvise tightening it a little so that it won't slip off her. "Well. Got room to grow," Sam mutters, tucking the diaper until he's sure both him and her are satisfied with it, before turning to the clothing. At least those don't need guides.

It's… weird, how alien this all seems. It isn't, in a way – but it feels like he should remember more. There was a time when he was going to be a dad. He learned this stuff then, he was – he remembers being terrified but confident. Thinking he got this. You'd think it would stick better.

At least Lou is patient as Sam figures out what he's forgotten somewhere along the way. They end with her in a fresh diaper and a little grey bodysuit, over which Sam tugs on a little pair of pants and shirt with longer sleeves – it's cold out, after all. There's even little socks, which Lou makes a face at, but lets him put on.

"Gotta keep you warm," Sam murmurs, tugging on the clothes here and there to make sure the fit is good and not too tight on her anywhere. It really isn't – they're all so big she's pretty much drowning in them. But it's definitely better than nothing. "Don't got a pod doing most of the work for us anymore. Can't have you getting a cold."

Lou makes her opinion known by taking hold of her own foot and trying to stick the new sock in her mouth. Sam watches her and then snorts. "Cute," he says, before picking her up. She coos and lays against his still bare chest like it's exactly where she belongs.

And it is.

Sam draws a breath and then turns to head out and back to the kitchen, where Ludens Fan is fiddling with the formula bottle, and what even Sam can tell is meant for feeding babies – it has a nipple thing.

"Package said lukewarm to skin temp," the guy says and holds the bottle out. "Think I got it about right, but you better check."

Sam checks – the formula, Baby Formula, is also Bridges make. It too has all the instructions written on the package. "Seems okay," Sam says, awkward – like he knows any better. "Thanks, man. Appreciate it."

"No worries," Ludens Fan says, sitting down. "I mean – it wasn't even four kilos of materials. That's like, nothing compared to the stuff you've hauled for me."

"Still," Sam says, looking at the instructions for a moment longer and then turning to Lou. "Hungry?"

She blows a spit bubble at him.

Sam snorts. "I'll take that as a yes," he murmurs, and sits down to figure out how to do the thing. Ludens Fan watches him, looking torn between amazed and horrified – looking between him, Lou, and his BT marked skin. He obviously wants to ask.

Sam glances at him. "BTs," he says and shrugs. Easier to say than explain the truths, anyway. It's not like many could contradict it, anyway.

"Yeah, um. I thought so," Ludens Fan says and coughs. "Just, damn, man. Looks rough."

Sam shakes his head, watching Lou trying to figure out the baby bottle. "You said there's more porters going about?"

"Yeah. I mean, not at the speeds you were going when you were in the area," Ludens Fan says, waving a hand. "But yeah, there's some porters running between Capital and Port Knot now pretty regularly, and they got those delivery bots – I think you were taking part in developing them? Read something about it. Anyway, we got stuff moving about more these days, it's pretty cool."

Sam nods. "People come here often?" he asks warily.

"Not like every day, but I can pretty much trust someone to come around every week at least," Ludens Fan agrees. "And most packages get where they're going too."

Sam eyes Lou fixedly as she tugs on the bottle with little hands, wondering how much traffic there would be out there. Ludens Fan's shelter isn't that far from a BT area, but people have weapons against BTs now…

His host looks at him and hums. "I'm thinking you're not here for a pit stop, exactly," he says slowly. "And without any ID… Are you aiming to go underground, Sam?"

Sam glances up sharply.

"Hey, you'll get no judgement from me, man," Ludens Fan says, holding his hands up. "I mean, look at me, where I'm living – got no leg to stand on. Just – makes a guy wonder. After all you've done, it kind of looks like you're maybe… on the run, here."

Sam shifts where he sits, holding Lou a bit more securely to his chest. "Not – exactly," he says. "I just – I've done my part. Figure I could… do what I want, now that the part is done."

Ludens Fan hums. "I get ya," he says. "And I mean, you did kind of – everything, from what I've heard, so doubt anyone could deny you getting to take a break. Or even retire," he muses and looks at Lou. "Looking to settling down, maybe?"

"Not here," Sam says, reflexively – Ludens Fan has always been good to him, but the man's place is a mess and staying this close to Capital Knot City…

Ludens Fan laughs. "Don't blame you – you must've seen so many better places," he says, a little wistful. "No, I hear you. I wouldn't settle here again, if I had better options. You thinking somewhere west?"

"Yeah, maybe," Sam says, noncommittal. He doesn't really know. There's… options, out in the west, but…

Lou's figured out the bottle now, and is chomping down on the teat with toothless gums, making smacking noises and a mess. "Almost got it," Sam says fondly, and she frowns at him, little nails scraping on the bottle as she concentrates on figuring it out. Looks like he will have to wipe her down, after, with the spills she's making.

Ludens Fan looks between him and the baby and coughs. "Well. You're welcome to stay here for as long as you need," he offers, generously. "Least I can do, really – and you can get in touch with other preppers from here, if you'd like. I mean, hush-hush like," he says and winks. "I might be UCA, but once a prepper, always a prepper, am I right? We got a community of our own. And I know you've done favours for a lot of preppers."

Sam looks up hesitantly. "You don't – mind?" he asks, glancing towards where there's a Bridges terminal installed in older systems of the Shelter.

"Mind? Dude, you are like a living legend – and I mean that in a literal sense," the guy says enthusiastically, making Sam smother a grimace. "Sam, man, they're going to write books about you – stories, histories. I bet there will be comic books, and movies once people get around to making those again! Hell yeah, I don't mind – I actually kind of want to take a shot at writing down your story myself!"

Sam smothers a sigh. Great, just great, he thinks and turns to look at Lou who giggles at his no doubt obvious discomfort.

Well, at least someone's happy.

Chapter Text

Sam stays two days in the Ludens Fan's shelter, trying to figure things out about Lou and what to do for her as fast as he can with what he has available there. Ludens Fan is good to him, letting him use his chiral printer as much as he can, and Sam might not be able to print them a truck or anything big like that, but he can print timefall proof cape to cover her with, and even a harness to carry her in.

He ends up not doing that, though, because it just… doesn't feel right. Instead he gets a length of cloth, makes it into a sling, and wears her under his jumpsuit, where he can feel her against his skin, and where she's damn well protected. Lou seems to prefer it too, though it doesn't let her see that much. He does print out a new timefall proof suit for it, though, with double zippers on the front – so that he can carry her, wear a harness, and also access her quickly if he needs to.

It makes him look a bit overweight. Or pregnant, if you're not looking too closely at his face.

"Looks comfy," Ludens Fan comments.

"Yeah," Sam agrees, patting Lou's bum through the clothing. She coos and nuzzles into his chest, huffing out little breaths. Safe and snug. "I appreciate everything you've done," he says to the guy. "You didn't have to."

"No, man, I did. I mean, what kind of asshole wouldn't?" Ludens Fan says, his knee bouncing as he watches them. "I haven't even seen a baby in – damn, I don't know how long. I mean, an actual baby, not a BB. It's kinda special."

Sam hums, noncommittal.

"You sure you should be taking her out, though?" Ludens Fan asks. "Stuff chiralium in the air does to people, and timefall, that's gotta be so much worse for babies. They're so small."

"Yeah. I'll keep her out of it, as much as I can," Sam says and sighs. "Can't stay here anyway."

The prepper looks a little uncomfortable at that, but doesn't object. He's gotten twitchy with Sam there – all preppers do, eventually, letting him stay a day or two at most, but eventually they want him gone. They're better about it than people in cities, anyway, but… porters are porters, even if he isn't one anymore, really.

"Where are you gonna go?" Ludens Fan asks. "The distro center?"

"No," Sam says, frowning. "Port Knot, maybe. See if I can catch a boat."

"Man," Ludens Fan says, amazed and a little incredulous. "You just say that, like it's that easy, just walk across and take a boat. I don't know how you do it, I really don't."

You just walk, mostly. Take a bike or a truck if you have one. Sam shakes his head. "Thanks for the stuff," he says, turning to his new cargo harness with its new packages. Mostly food and stuff for Lou, with couple of thermal pads just in case. "I'd pay you back, but…"

"Hey, we're living in a post scarcity dystopia," Ludens Fan says and gives him a thumb's up. "No one pays for anything anymore. And hey, maybe one day you'll tell me the whole story and I'll do, like… a comic book or something about it. Might even be able to send it over the wire – speaking of which – "

Sam shoulders the cargo harness carefully, making sure the straps are putting no tension on his clothes or on Lou, while Ludens Fan turns away, to grab a small container from near the printer. "Made you something," he says. "Since you don't have Bridges Cuffs anymore, figure you could use it."

Sam accepts the package warily, and while Lou tilts her head to peek past his suit collar, he turns it in his hand and opens it. It's padded inside, with a – oh, damn. It's a phone.

Fuck, it's been so long since he'd needed one that he'd almost forgotten they were even a thing.

"Is this registered?" Sam asks, taking the thing out and turning it in his hand, trying to remember how much functionality it had. Calls, mails, likes, right? All the things you can do with Bridges Cuffs, with none of the commitment.

"Not yet," Ludens Fan shrugs. "Figure you wanted to do that yourself. I guess you won't be going out as Sam Porter Bridges, anymore."

"… yeah, no," Sam agrees and sits down by the messy kitchen table, turning the thing in his hand. He needs a call sign, a new one. Not Sam Strand, not Sam Porter Bridges. "Um."

Ludens Fan looks between him and the phone. "Make it a good one, man," he says. "You get stuck with the thing, you know, and eventually your call sign is all people call you – and believe me when I say, you should choose one you can live with."

Sam blinks and looks up at him. "Your name isn't Ludens Fan?"

The guy bursts out laughing. "No man, no, it isn't," he says with a snort. "But I made my bed when I picked it, so. You get used to it eventually. Don't have much of a choice."

Huh.

Sam looks at the phone, turning it in his fingers before turning it on. Immediately it asks him to register a call sign, which he types in with his thumb, to an obvious result.

Call sign Sam is taken, and not available to use. Please select another one.

"Yeah," Ludens Fan says with a grimace, folding his arms. "The ones that are actual names tend to get taken fast, man. Sorry."

"S'not your fault," Sam says and frowns. Against his chest Lou lets out a coo, little hand scratching at his pec, and Sam looks down at her, seeing just the dome of her head. Hm.

Sam and Lou is not taken. It might be risky, though – people know what he named Lou, they might be able to use the call sign to find them and – yeah, Sam backspaces on both and then closes his hand over the phone, thinking hard. He wants to make calls, he'll want to, have to – but he doesn't want people to immediately know it's him. What would…

"It can be whatever you want," Ludens Fan comments. "I mean, look at me. Then there's Fragile, that's what it is. Um, think there's a guy named Heartman? And I've been writing to this guy who's just known as Elder. It can really be anything."

Sam hums in agreement. People choose their call signs based on what they are, more than who they are. What they feel like. "Fragile's name is just a name," he comments.

"Still a weird name, when you think about it, but nobody's judging," Ludens Fan shrugs. "So, yeah, just choose something that feels right."

Something that feels right, huh. What is Sam, right now, other than confused, vaguely terrified and like he has no idea what he's doing? He feels lost, mostly, and he's definitely not calling himself that. Would send the wrong impression, former porter called Lost. Could be ironic, but. No.

Lou mumbles something against his chest and Sam looks down at her, feeling her shift into a more comfortable position. At the sight and feel of her, he feels…

Hm. Yeah. Yeah, that could work.

Sam looks at the phone and then types in, Relief. No warning about it being taken this time. Sam hesitates over the select button and then blows out a breath and hits it. Relief. He's Relief now.

"Nice," Ludens Fan says. "You mind if I shoot you a mail? To, you know, establish contact?"

"Yeah, go for it," Sam says, and watches the guy turn and type him a quick message on his terminal. The mail is just, Gotcha contact! with a row of 👍👍👍👍 following it. The first four likes on Relief's account – which, compared to the account of Sam Porter Bridges with its over three hundred thousand likes…

Sam hums, and sends Ludens Fan a handful of likes back, making the man preen. "Nice," the guy says. "Hey, you want me to shoot your contact ahead, to the guys in the west? So they know to expect you?"

"No, I'll – go see them myself," Sam says and after looking over the phone. "I want to establish those connections on my own, I guess."

"I dig it," Ludens Fan says and looks at him. "You all good to go, then?"

Sam checks his gear loadout and then Lou. Her diaper's clean, he has a bottle of formula ready and tucked against a thermal pad to keep it warm and ready to go at any moment. Everything looks good. "Yeah," he says and stands up, slipping the phone into a slot on his harness. "Thanks, Ludens Fan. Really. For – everything."

"Aw, man, it's no big deal really," Ludens Fan says, scratching at the back of his head and standing up. "And, uh. Just Ludens is probably fine. I mean, who even cares about this stuff anymore, right?"

"You do," Sam comments, glancing at the posters around the kitchen walls. "Isn't that enough?"

The guy cracks a grin at that. "Well, being the one and only Ludens now, that's… kinda cool, too."

He holds out his hand for a shake, and Sam doesn't even flinch. It's still not something he likes, not something he thinks he will ever go out his way to seek out… but he does shake the guy's hand, and it's okay. It's just fine.

"I'll shoot you a mail every now and then, alright?" Ludens says. "Good luck out there. Don't let the BTs get you."

"Yeah. Thanks," Sam says, and wonders if he would maybe even try to write something back, this time. Would be a change of pace, that, wouldn't it? "Well. Guess I'm going then."

"Yeah, sure. Oh, wait, wait, actually, got another thing for you – or for the little one," Ludens says and almost stumbles out of the room. There's a crash of something falling over in the other room, sounds like a box of something, and then Ludens hurries back, carrying with him something. "Here –"

It's a toy – not like other of Ludens toys, though, this isn't a hard plastic figurine. This is soft, soft looking dog toy with an… eyepatch, for some reason.

"Made it myself way, way back when, it was – another game thing, never mind," Ludens says and holds the dog toy to him. "All kids need toys, right? What do you think? His name is D-Dog."

Sam hesitates and then accepts the toy. It's – furry, and soft, no hard parts aside from the single button eye and the nose. Nothing Lou could injure herself with. "D-Dog, huh," Sam says and then looks down to the baby herself. "What do you think, Lou?" he asks and holds the toy where she can see it. "Shall we keep him?"

It takes Lou a moment to get what the thing is, and then she reaches for it, making a curious little noise. Carefully Sam holds it out just close enough for her to touch, watching her curl her tiny fingers into the fake fur. She coos, excited, and grabs on.

"Yeah, we're keeping him," Sam concludes and lets her take the toy, tucking it under his jumpsuit. "Thanks, Ludens."

The guy beams and gives him an enthusiastic 👍.


 

The rain's let up, at least. There's still BTs in the area, he can sense them, but not as many as there'd been the last time he'd gone through here. Judging by the looks of it, someone had gone through the place with hematic grenades – the printed ones they're making now from synthesised version of his blood, probably. Nothing else would do the trick, anyway.

He probably should've gotten some of those from Ludens Fan's printer but… whatever, he can manage without. He always has.

"Let's get a move on," Sam murmurs, patting Lou through his suit where she's tucked against his body. "It's a long way we have to go."

And he'd have to go around the distro center too, if he wanted to keep Bridges off his trail. Not that he thinks anyone is after him, precisely. Die-Hardman let him go back at the government building, anyway, but… whatever. He's not risking it. Nor is he feeling like explaining himself to Hancock anyway, the guy'd been decent with him, talked him through some issues with Lou too, back when she'd been just BB, but… it would feel a bit too much like slapping the guy in the face, walking away from Bridges now. Hancock's still loyal to the organisation. S'not worth it.

They would need someplace to stop by before making their way to Port Knot, though. It's a long ass way.

"The Windfarm, maybe?" Sam asks, looking at Lou. She's got her hands curled into D-Dog's fur and is half asleep, and… he really doesn't think he can take her to the forest in that ravine. The place is crawling with BTs anyway, and the wind down there is deadly. Wouldn't be good for her – hell, it isn't good for anyone. Just the wind turbines. "Yeah, never mind."

Nothing to it but get moving – so that's what he does, circling around the BT territory as much as he can, and staying low when he can't. The Distribution Center West of Capital Knot is smack dab in the middle of his way, which forces him to cross the river and go that way – thankfully, someone's built a bridge there, which keeps him from having to wade through, at least. It adds more length to the way, but… it's nice to be on the move again.

Damn, what he wouldn't give for a bike or a truck right about now, though.

He walks until Lou gets hungry, and then stops by a cluster of coral with cryptobiotes hovering in the air, sitting down on a patch of grass to get Lou out. It's – different, resting with her out and about like this – easier and harder. She takes so much less space now, but also more, because all the stuff he now hauls for her. And yet, she's so small she's basically weightless in his lap, and as Sam frees himself of the cargo harness, it's like he's left holding nothing at all.

"There we go," he murmurs, while she lays on his legs, kicking up with hers while reaching for the cryptobiotes zooming by. "No, I don't think you're good to eat those just yet. Need teeth for that," Sam says, catching her little hand on two of his. "Got some formula for you, instead. How about it?"

Lou accepts the teat of the baby bottle and drinks without issues, but she keeps watching the cryptobiotes in the air, trying to reach for them. Sam snorts when she almost catches one, making an excited little wiggle in his lap. Quickly plucks the thing out of the air, showing it for her. "S'not a toy," he comments, when she makes to grab for it. "It's food." With that said, he plops it into his mouth, and bites down.

Lou looks utterly betrayed, kicking at him in distress and with another snort Sam grabs another bug, and lets her have it. It doesn't stay in her grip for long, but it keeps her entertained while he goes to check his phone.

There's two messages from Ludens – one general babbling about how happy the guy was to see him, and then another message which came immediately after.

"Hey again, Relief. Forgot about something, sorry – didn't really think about it at the time, but better late than never, right? With more porters going about we've gotten into touch with more people in the area, and I think you didn't get to this one? Anyway, there's another prepper south of the distro center – just cross the little lake at the end. The Musician. I bet he'd like being hooked into the system, at long last, and he's a decent guy, he'll keep your secrets. You still have that Q-pid?"

Sam does, actually. He probably should've gotten rid of it, but he'd figured it doesn't really have much of a purpose anymore, since most of the country is on the network anyway, and no one had actually asked for it back.

"The Musician, hmm," Sam murmurs, and then opens a map on the phone. He can access the rest of the chiral network the same everyone else can on their devices, but, true enough, there's a spot he's missed. He'd been transporting sperm and eggs and relief stuff back then – hah – so he'd not really stopped and looked around on his way from the distro center to Port Knot. "Might be worth it going now. What do you say, Lou?"

Lou makes a face around the baby bottle's teat and then there's a tell tale smell of a mess being made.

Sam eyes her with disbelief, and then sighs. "After we're done dealing with that, then."

Once Lou has been fed and cleaned up, and she's got a new clean diaper on, Sam tucks her back in before shouldering his cargo rack and getting up. Looks like it's a bit of a way to the lake, but if he keeps up a decent pace, he should make it there before the night. "Alright," he murmurs. "Let's get going, then."

There are new footpaths in the area, even something of a road, being beaten into the previously mostly just soggy and rocky terrain. People have even moved some of the rock debris out of the way, which is cool – there's really more traffic here, then. Still no actual roads, though. Hm. Wonder what it takes to lay down an autopaver in an area…

Sam gets into the rhythm of jogging, and soon Lou is fast asleep in her sling, snuffling and drooling against him. Sam alternates between looking at her and the area, keeping one hand on her at all times to support her. She looks cosy and content. Good.

"Keep it up," Sam murmurs, quietly. "Keep it up."

It turns out to be a pretty nice day, all in all.


 

It's a pity he missed the place, first time around. The little lake is kind of pretty, with nice clear water, shallow enough to wade right in. It's also obvious there's been people around – there's a generator, a watch tower and a bridge, leading right up to the prepper shelter, along with a couple of ladders. Definitely people in the area.

It's… weird and nice, seeing all of it. Everything was so desolate, when he'd came through these places. And sure, he'd not been here specifically, before, but he'd been near, and it had been empty. It's just nice in general, seeing the signs of civilisation in a place which should've by all rights been completely desolate. Maybe there really is something to it all, to the whole connection business.

There's also a couple of packages floating about, so it looks like maybe someone had taken a tumble and not bothered to pick up after themselves. Sam checks the recipient ID's and, sure enough, they're marked for the Musician. That's handy. After picking them up and adding them to his gear, Sam uses a ladder someone left behind to get up from the lake's surface and then crosses the bridge, leaving a bunch of likes for both before making his way up to the shelter. This time, the automated system register's is presence.

"Freelancer ID recognized. Welcome, Relief."

"Heh," Sam answers, and makes his way into the shelter opening, where the terminal rises from the floor, welcoming him – and soon after, a chiralgram appears, fractured and barely legible.

"Yeah? A delivery, is it?" the man asks in the gram. "Wait, you aren't the – do I know you from somewhere?"

"Maybe," Sam says. "Got you some stuff someone dropped – music sheets?"

"Oh man, that's awesome – I figured those washed down the river. Yeah, just put them in the shelf, will you?"

Sam glances to his left as the cargo shelf snaps out of the floor, and shoves the packages in. "I also got the Q-pid, if you're into getting properly on the grid."

"What, really? That's great, I've been waiting for forever. Figured since Sam Bridges missed this place it was never gonna happen – yeah, hook me up," the Musician says.

Sam waits until the cargo shelf sinks back into the floor, before taking the Q-pid out. Lou's head peeks out of his collar and she makes a cooing noise, as Sam holds out the Q-pid to the terminal, wondering how this activity would look on Bridges terminals. Here's hoping it wouldn't.

At this point he's too tired to care, really.

The data transfer starts like they all do, with a surge of chiralium in the air, followed by a rush of data, flowing in. Sam carefully balances himself with his arms as gravity goes weird and his feet come off the ground – a moment later, the connection slots into place, and comes crashing down.

Quickly Sam collects the Q-pid, shoving it back to his pocket, zipping it up to keep it from flying off. A moment later, the chiralgram of the Musician appears again.

"You're Sam Bridges," the guy says with amazement. "Man, what the hell? I appreciate it, but what the hell? The system read you as –" he leans away. "Relief?"

"Yeah, got a new ID, sorry 'bout the confusion," Sam says, gruff. Maybe he shouldn't have… "I'm not with Bridges anymore."

"Huh," the Musician says, considering him. "But you got the Q-pid? Well, whatever. Appreciate the hook up, man, been waiting since forever. And thanks for the sheets too, I figured those were all lost."

"You're welcome," Sam says, and that's when Lou lets out a noise, kicking at his belly. "Oi, settle down –"

The Musician spots her immediately of course, and lets out another, "Huh," he says. "Not with Bridges anymore, and new ID and a kid? Getting a new lease on life, then?"

"Something like that," Sam agrees, putting a hand on Lou's back and trying to calm her down. He can't tell if she's annoyed or happy or what – mostly she just feels energetic. Probably wants off the sling. "Listen, I hate to ask you this since we just met and all – but is there any chance…?" he casts a look at the door and grimaces. "It's just. It's getting late."

"Hm," the Musician answers and folds his arms. "You like music?"

"Yeah?" Sam says. "Who doesn't?"

"Insane people," the Musician says and grins. "Can you play anything? Like an instrument?"

"Er. Dunno. Maybe?" he thinks he's maybe played something, at some point. "I can whistle, if that helps?"

The guy snorts. "Good enough for me," he says. "Come right on in, man, I got the room. But, uh, leave your stuff and suit up there, yeah? Boots too. I don't want chiralium inside, sure you understand. I'll give you a private locker, okay? You just put your stuff in."

Sam lets out a sigh and nods, shrugging off his cargo rack and then going about stripping out of his jumpsuit, while the private locker opens for him, empty and ready to hold his stuff.

The Musician's place is a lot neater than Ludens', no boxes and no posters on the floor and walls, no toys everywhere. Instead there's musical instruments all over the place, whole walls covered with them. Sam, who can just about recognize a guitar when he sees one, didn't even know there were that many different kinds – with a glance he can see something like a dozen flutes alone.

"Hey, man. Welcome to my shack," the Musician says, coming to greet him. He looks between Sam and Lou and shoves his hands into his pockets. "Hate to be that kind of host, but think you could take a shower and shove your clothing into a cleaner?"

"Yeah, no problem," Sam agrees. "You got chiral cleaning shower?"

"Nah, but it's better than nothing," the Musician says and shrugs. "I've managed to keep this place pretty clean so far, and I'd hate to break a record, you know."

"Yeah, I get you. I'll clean up," Sam says, never one to turn down a free shower. "Um, hate to be that kind of guest, but could you print something for me? Nursery Travel Kit No. 2, size XS – it's for the kid."

"I don't – oh right, chiral network, I got access to that stuff now, all the designs and print files? That's awesome – yeah, yeah, I can print it for you," the Musician agrees and waves him to the shower. "There's bathrobes there and stuff, use them."

"Sure. Thanks."

The shower is definitely appreciated after a whole day of jogging. He's been using trucks and bikes and ziplines for so long that he'd sort of forgotten how much of a mess you end up as, after a full day of running. The shower does good for Lou, too, letting her direct some of her energy to splashing about.

She also pees on him.

"Is this going to be trend?" Sam asks with fond annoyance. "You making a mess in a shower?"

She just giggles at him and wiggles her toes, which he takes as yeah, probably.

Shaking his head, Sam washes them both before towelling himself off and wrapping her up in another towel. Lou kicks and coos, looking content and snug, which alone makes this trip worth it. Sam smiles at her, grabbing a bathrobe from the shelf to pull on, before stepping out.

There's music playing in the shelter – and it sounds weird. Scratchy and – gritty somehow. It's also a song he's never heard before – a man asking, "but isn't she lovely made from love, isn't she pretty?"

"Like it?" the Musician asks from where he's standing by a stove. "Figured it would go with a theme – don't know your kid's sex, mind you, but you just can't beat Stevie Wonder on vinyl, you know?"

"Right, sure," Sam, who has no idea what he's talking about, says.

"Stevie Wonder wrote a whole album about his daughter, Songs in the Key of Love – culmination of his classic period," the Musician says and sighs. "Sadly, this is the only song I got from that album – found this single in a clearout like, twenty years ago. Haven't had the cause to play it much, but hey, any excuse is a good excuse to play the classics, right?"

Sam shakes his head. "If you say so, sure," he says. "Did you get the kit?"

"Oh, yeah, printed it right out – over there, on the side table."

Sam goes to check. It's basically a condensed version of all the things he got back at Ludens – couple of nappies with powder and stuff, along with a single set of clothes. Sam nods to the Musician and then returns to the bathroom to deal with Lou – who is quickly going from excited to tired.

"Been a long day, huh?" Sam murmurs to her. "Don't sleep yet, we gotta get some formula in you first. Package says you need to eat every two to three hours."

Lou coos and sticks her thumb in her mouth – but doesn't conk out immediately, so she's listening at least.

Sam secures the bodysuit on her and then heads back to the kitchen. "Thanks, man," he says and glances around for the source of the music. It's still playing the same song. "This is vinyl?"

"Yeah, got it hooked to the system, there," the Musician says, pointing. "Nice isn't it? You ever heard vinyl before, Sam?"

"Couple of times. Playing the same song, though – a funeral march," Sam answers.

"… sounds cheerful," the Musician says, and looks away from what he's doing – cooking. "You like pancakes, Sam? I just got a package from west – wheat flour. You know how long it's been since I had pancakes? Mind you, I got no chickens or anything, no eggs, so they're kinda flat, and had to use artificial sweeteners of course, but hey, a pancake is a pancake, right?"

Sam blinks. "What's a pancake?"

"Ah, right, you're a – ah, it's food. Sweet food, basically a flat cake on a frying pan – you'll see, it's great," The Musician says, turning away with an awkward smile. "It's amazing, getting flour again. Not that food processors aren't amazing, but actual real cooked food, that's something else."

Sam hums. Most what he eats is cryptobiotes. "Sounds good," he says. "And thanks for letting us in, especially since you don't actually know us." Usually it takes him hauling all kinds of shit for people before they let him stay.

"Hell, everyone knows you, man," the Musician says. "Sam Porter Bridges! It's a real honour and all that. It'll make a great story, anyway, you just turning up like this out of the blue."

"It's prefer if it didn't," Sam says. "Make a story that is. And it's just Sam."

The Musician glances at him and hums. "Right, right," he says. "Not with, Bridges, huh?"

"Yeah," Sam agrees and looks down at Lou, who is still sucking her thumb. Right, food for the baby. "Figure I did my bit, so I'd like to just… vanish, now," Sam says, and grabs the bottle from the kit.

"Tough thing to do with a baby, I guess," the Musician says thoughtfully. "Still, it's a hell of a story, so just for that I don't mind. And if you don't mind sharing, I'd like to hear it."

Sam's not so sure about sharing, but… the guy did take them in for the night, so. Might be called for. "Yeah, maybe," he agrees, testing the formula temperature. Seems about right, he thinks and offers it to Lou. 

The Musician glances him and hums. "Yeah. And maybe you two wouldn't mind hearing some music in the meantime," he adds hopefully, turning back to the stove. "Man, it's been years since I've gotten to play for anyone. Live audiences are pretty rare in these parts. Hey, do you think I can play music over chiral transmission, now that the connection's there?"

"Don't see why not," Sam muses and glances at him. "Might break off if there's a chiral storm, but I don't see why it wouldn't work."

"Sweet," the guy says with a grin. "And speaking of sweet, here's pancakes."

Pancakes, it turns out, are pretty damn great.  

Chapter Text

Sam falls asleep not much after dinner in the middle of the Musician's performance – the guy was playing something big with a lot of metal plates and tubes called a vibraphone, saying it sounded a bit like a music box, and hey, kids like music boxes? It was nice, and Lou seemed to like it, but the day of jogging caught up with Sam somewhere along the way, and with a porter's affinity for instant sleep, he fell asleep the moment he allowed himself to relax.

He wakes up to Lou crying and tugging at his clothes. The room is quiet now, the Musician gone – it's dark and the air conditioning has been turned on low, so it's probably the night outside. He'd slept maybe… three hours?

"Hey, hey, shush," Sam says to Lou, who looks up at him, reaching for him but keeping on crying. "What's up – you hungry, made a mess? You need to be quiet, we're not alone here, don't wake up our host…"

Rocking her does nothing to calm her down, and sure enough, her diaper feels a little heavy – doesn't smell, so, number one in there, probably. That usually doesn't make her cry like this, so, hungry too, probably. "Right, let's see about that formula, there should be something left…"

There is, but it's been left next to an air conditioning vent and so it's gone cold. Sam tests it and grimaces at the temperature, before glancing around for something to heat it in. There's a microwave. Great.

Lou cries and cries during the process, and nothing Sam does to try and calm her down does anything. Rocking just makes her louder, murmuring goes on deaf ears, she just wails away, like a siren going off and off. She's gonna wake up the Musician, if this keeps up. "Come on, Lou, don't be like this…"

And then Sam, to make everything just that much worse, overheats the goddamn formula to the point it's too hot for him, never mind her.

Muttering curses, Sam dunks the bottle under cold water in the sink, hoping to fix it, and then turns to Lou in earnest to try and calm her down. "I'm on it, Lou, I promise you, you'll get your food, just – calm down now, okay? Come on, sh-sh-sh, it's alright…"

Nothing, and she's starting to look absolutely miserable too, her face red with the strain of flailing and crying, it's wearing her out fast. Shit, shit. "Hey, hey, look at me?" Sam says and then, at the end of his rope, starts singing. "See the sunset, the day is ending… let that yawn out, there's no pretending…"

It takes a while for it to work at all. Lou obviously tries to concentrate on him, but whatever's bothering her is bigger and so Sam has to work his way through the song a couple of times – the damn thing isn't long enough. "… I will hold you and protect you… so let love warm you… till the morning…"

It quiets her down to discontented whimpers and red-faced sniffling finally. Sam keeps rocking and humming the song while waiting out the damn formula, wondering if he should just go fuck it, and use the Musician's printer to get more. That'd probably be a waste of materials, though, since he already has a bottle right here, it's just a little hot.

"See the sunset, the day is ending," Sam sings distractedly, while stirring the formula until he thinks it's about good. "Here we go, finally, damn… here, Lou…"

She makes faces at him and almost rejects the thing, wringing little hands unhappily, until he gets the thing into her mouth. With a relieved sigh, Sam leans against the kitchen counter, with her tucked securely on one arm, and keeps on humming. "I will hold you and protect you… this damn song needs more words. Wonder if it has…"

There's a snort at the door, and Sam looks up sharply. The Musician's standing there, in a set of loose-fitting pyjamas. "Morning," the guy says.

"Don't think it's even close to morning," Sam grumbles. "We woke you up? Sorry."

"It's no biggie," the guy says, looking at them curiously. "That thing you were signing, a lullaby? Never heard it."

"Yeah, it – I don't know if anyone knows it. Heard someone sing it – a long time ago," Sam says, shifting where he stands. He's still not quite gotten the whole Clifford Unger matter sorted in his head. "I only know like… four lines."

"It's nice," the Musician says. "And not something I've ever heard before, which is a – thing. Can you sing it again?"

Sam gives him an uncomfortable look at that while Lou wiggles a little on his arm, kicking at his hand. She still looks a little irritable, so… whatever. Sam sings the thing again, what little he heard of it in the flashbacks. "Don't know more words, but I think there's more of the melody," Sam says, and then continues it by whistling quietly, looking at Lou the whole time to avoid meeting the Musician's eye.

The whole thing is so awkward.

"It's nice," the Musician says again, appreciative – he's holding a phone in his hand. "Hm, can't find the melody or the lyrics, I don't think it's in the archives – mine or the chiral network's. That's awesome, man."

"It is?" Sam asks, confused.

"I mean, for me it is, anyway. Been going through everything about music on the chiral network and man, there isn't much there," the Musician says, making a face. "Old stuff mostly, not much of that either – my records here are more complete, seriously. And new stuff? Yeah, forget it. No one's making music anymore. But that one, the thing you just sang, I haven't heard that one before."

"Right," Sam says, wary. The spiel has that prepper obsession quality it that most preppers seem to share. They all get seriously invested in something, and then everything kind of becomes about it.

"You mind if I try my hand at it?" the Musician asks excitedly. "It's been years since I got to work my way through something I didn't write myself."

"Yeah, sure – go for it," Sam says, shrugging.

"Actually, do you think you could play it on anything? I got a harmonica with your name on it, it's easy as anything to play," the Musician suggests.

Sam shrugs again, more confused than anything now. The Musician nods and hurries to find the thing, while Sam turns his attention back at Lou and mouths, "what the fuck," at her. Lou gives him a formula-filled gurgle in answer and spills the stuff over his arm. "Gross," Sam says out loud. "Drink your food."

Harmonica turns out to be an instrument you play by blowing air into a thing that kind of looks like a slat out of an air-conditioning vent. The Musician eagerly shows him how to work it out, completely ignoring the fact that Sam has a baby he's feeding. "Go on, try it."

"It's the middle of the night," Sam comments, making a face.

"And we're all awake, so who cares," the prepper says. "Go on, I bet the little one will like it too. Kids like music."

Sam sighs and takes a seat by the kitchen table, setting Lou more comfortably in his lap. Once he's sure she's good and still drinking, he takes the harmonica and makes a face at it.

The noise it makes is weird. But not bad. It's also pretty easy to figure out, and after blowing into it a couple of times Sam finds where he can get out the noises he wants. And yeah, the tune of the lullaby, it doesn't sound half bad, coming out of the harmonica.

The Musician watches him with interest, folding his arms. "Huh," he says.

"What now," Sam asks warily.

"You worked that out pretty fast," the guy says. "You really haven't played harmonica before? What about any other instrument?"

Sam shrugs. "Why?"

The Musician looks at the harmonica and then at him. "You don't know notes? Because it kinda sounds like you have ear training, at least. You just played that thing by the ear on an instrument you didn't even know existed before – that's… skill. Could be actual talent, but usually it's training."

Sam makes a noncommittal noise. "Training."

"Yeah. At the early age," the Musician says. "Were you taught music when you were little, like, before ten?"

Sam looks away at that, down at Lou. "Don't remember," he says and sets the harmonica down.

"… right, right," the Musician says, grimacing, but still looking fascinated. "Huh. You know, music wires into people's brains differently from other memories – like, music you hear and like when you're young. It encodes differently into your brain, so people with dementia and stuff, they're likely to remember music they liked when they were kids, even if they lose everything else."

"Right," Sam says, increasingly awkward with this topic.

"A lot of mnemonics use musical patterns and rhythms too – people remember melodies better," the Musician says excitedly, really getting into the topic now. "And a lot of early oral history was done in rhyme, probably could be sung too – probably because it just made them that much easier to remember. Man, I never thought that it might work even with chiralium related memory loss, that's awesome."

Sam makes a noise and stares at Lou hard. "Right," he says, wondering if he could just duck out of this conversation. Did the Musician have a guest room? It had never come up.

"That's interesting, that's really interesting," the Musician says, eyes shining, and turns to grab something off his instrument-adorned walls – a weird box with flat pieces of metal sticking out in a neat row. It turns out to be an instrument too, and not half bad sounding one either, as the guy plucks at the metal pieces to produce notes. Like that, he works his way through the melody Sam had sung, going back and forth between notes until he gets it down.

Well, Lou seems to enjoy it, turning her eyes to the guy. She isn't drinking anymore – as small as she is, she can't even drink one fourth of the bottle in one go.

"You know, I will never step out of this bunker," the Musician says suddenly. "I've spent the last thirty years learning and memorising every bit of music I could get my hands on. One bit of timefall, and who knows how much of that's lost. Man," he sighs shakes his head. "I could never do what you porter guys do. How can you bear it? Not just the aging and the other health effects, but the forgetting?"

Sam shifts, taking the bottle from Lou now that she's done with it. "Some people have things they want to forget," he says. "Or… so I figure."

He thinks of the picture, with Bridget and a woman who'd once been Sam's wife, who he can barely remember now. He figures that's what he wanted to forget, when he became a porter. Worked pretty damn well, too.

"Yeah," the prepper says, plucking out the melody again. "Still. It's damn… damn impressive. And kind of sad, I guess."

Sam grunts and then lifts Lou to his chest. "You have a bedroom for us, or am I on the couch?"

The guy blows out a breath. "No, I got a room for you, just over there," he points. "Clean sheets and everything."

"Then I'll turn in," Sam says and stands up. "Sorry about waking you."

"It's cool, it's cool," the Musician says, probably cluing into his discomfort now, since he looks a little awkward too. "Thanks for the melody," he says. "You mind if I work at it a bit, see if I can make a piece of it?"

"Knock yourself out," Sam says, grabs what remains of the travel kit of baby stuff, and heads to the guest bedroom to get Lou changed, and maybe catch a little bit more sleep before morning. Lou watches him as they go, sticking her thumb into her mouth and making a muffled, questioning noise.

"S'hard," Sam murmurs while laying her out on the bed. "You know you lost something and you lost it for a reason, but… along with it goes the why. Why did you want to lose the thing, in the first place. "

Not that it's hard to guess, with the case of his wife. He remembers enough to know it was a bad time for him. But with it went all the good times too. So, now he just has this vague knowledge that once he had a wife, and a kid on the way, and next to no memory of how they got there, or why, or what it was like.

Sam shakes his head.

It's all in the past, anyway.


 

The Musician, it looks like, hasn't slept all night. He's still in the living room, working something on an old looking computer with waveforms and blocks of something – audio? It doesn't look terribly interesting to Sam, but the guy seems into it.

"Good morning," the Musician says, lifting his headphones a little. "Slept well?"

"Yeah, thanks," Sam agrees, with Lou resting sleepy and loose against his shoulder. "And I think I'd like to get going as quick as I can. Gotta cross the mountains, the earlier I go, the further along I'll get before night."

"Sure, sure – there's food in the kitchen, take whatever," the Musician says, tapping at the computer screen and moving blocks around.

"You mind if I print food for Lou?"

"Yeah, go ahead – so as long as it doesn't use chiral crystals, I'm running a bit low."

"It doesn't." Sam leaves the guy to it and heads to the kitchen, checking the food and then printing Lou a kit of baby formula. They eat in a relative quiet – the food available is mostly just protein gruel, but food is food and Sam's not about to complain. Kind of looks like Lou's got the better end of the stick this time, though.

"Eat up," Sam murmurs. "We got a long way to go today." No way they would make it over the mountains in one day on foot, but there are enough caverns and rocky ledges to provide shelter, which should see them through the night. Or who knows, maybe someone's built a timefall shelters along the way. "Maybe I should grab a PCC. And a weapon. What do you say?"

Both use chiral crystals to print, though, so… maybe not.

"Hey," the Musician calls from the lounge area. "Listen to this, tell me what you think?"

The speakers around the place come to life – and there's a lot of speakers here. They start playing a familiar melody, with familiar lyrics, see the sunset, let that yawn out… The music isn't quite like the music Sam used to play in his private rooms back in Bridges facilities, but it's definitely recognizably music, and not half bad sounding music at that. It also has more lyrics, now.

I'll stay with you by your side. I'll wait and soon I'll see your smile in our dream…

Sam looks up and then leans back, while Lou coos quietly and appreciatively. He's had the piece play in the back of his head for what feels like years now, playing the same lyrics over and over. Now there's more, and it's – a little less like a lullaby the longer it goes on, getting more energetic. But it's… not bad.

"Just a first draft," the Musician says, coming to the doorway, arms folded as they listen the piece play out. "I think it would sound better with female vocals, maybe? What do you think of the lyrics?"

"I don't know," Sam admits. "Um. It's not bad, I guess?"

"I'll keep working on it, if you don't mind, see if I can make something out of it," the guy says and looks down at him. "But it's your song, I think – what do you want to call it?"

Sam blinks. It's not his, it's Clifford Ungers'. Who sang it to… Sam clears his throat and looks down at Lou. "BB," he says. "Um. Song for BB or… something like that."

The Musician's brows arch. "BB's theme?" he suggests, looking thoughtful.

"Sure, why not," Sam says and blows out a breath.

The Musician nods slowly, "Yeah, I dig it," he says. "BB's theme. That's. Poetic, kinda."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, increasingly awkward. "Um. I think we'll just eat and go, get out of your hair. Did my clothes wash up alright?"

"Yeah, all clean and dry – I hung them up in the bathroom for you," the Musician says and moves away. "I'll send you the song once it's finished, okay? In the meantime –" he grabs something and then brings it to Sam. "Take this. Everyone needs a little music in their lives, right? And it's getting rarer, I think – people knowing how to play music at all, you know."

"Er," Sam says, eyeing the harmonica.

"Not taking no for an answer," the Musician says and sets it on the table, smiling. "You can play it for the kid. Looked like she enjoys it."

"Y-yeah," Sam agrees, looking at Lou. The song, BB's theme, is still playing in the background, and Lou seems utterly spellbound by it. "Yeah, okay. Thanks."

They leave not much after, Sam getting him and Lou dressed up in the bathroom and then heading up to the shelter entrance, where he gets his stuff out of the locker and pulls on his suit. It's raining outside, though, so after a moment of thinking, he pulls out the timefall proof rain cape he'd printed out at Ludens' and pulls that on too – it'll let him shelter Lou better.

He also hooks up the harmonica to his suit hood, so that it's always there and easy to use.

"Ready to go?" Sam murmurs to her, snug under his suit and under the rain cape both. She coos at him contently, hugging D-Dog close, and bumps her head against his chest. Sam smiles. "Yeah, let's go."


 

It ends up being nearly three days up in the mountains. The place is crawling with BTs – making him remember the last time he made his way through the place, in the mess of the post… whatever it was that happened at Edge Knot. The whole world got fucked up for a while, and these mountains had been crawling with higher level BTs, he'd barely gotten away from them. Looks like some are still lingering in the place – and Sam no longer has a way to see them, or any weapons to fight the things with for that matter. All he can do is sorta… sense them in the area.

So, he does what he did before all this Bridges nonsense even begun – he stays low, holds his breath, and is generally damn careful. It gets them through the worst of it, but the damn rain just won't let up. It only gets worse, coming down hard and thick, making everything muddy as grasses and mosses on the mountain grow and die, grow and die…

He ends up spending most of the second day in a cave, eating cryptobiotes, playing with Lou and waiting for the rain to stop.

It's where Fragile eventually finds them, coming out of the rain with her chiral umbrella held up, and the cinders of her jump still lingering to her suit.

"There you are," she says, blinking at him where Sam is sitting, on a patch of moss, with Lou lying in his lap. "You left, burned your cuffs. People are worried."

"Mmh," Sam says, eyeing her. He should've figured. "The Musician gave me up, huh?"

"Don't blame him. He posted a song to the network, looking for female vocalists to sing it – it caused a buzz," Fragile says and steps out of the rain. "Deadman recognised the song instantly, and asked me to look into it. He's worried."

Shit. Yeah, he would be. Sam lowers his eyes, and Fragile follows them to Lou. What she thinks, he can't tell, but she's very careful, very quiet, when she steps closer and slowly crouches down.

"Some people think you might've put yourself into the incinerator along with your BB," Fragile says, and Sam's blood runs cold. Fuck, he hadn't even realised. "Deadman never did," she adds, calm. "Nor Heartman. There wasn't enough chiral matter in the air, following. But you did burn the cuffs, so… they worry."

"… yeah," Sam says and shifts where he sits. "I guess."

For a moment Fragile is quiet, just watching him and Lou, her expression still unreadable. It always is, even when she goes out of her way to emote, when she tries. She's a porter too, though. It does things to your ability to relate. She doesn't ask about the obvious, doesn't even mention it, which he likes.

"You got new ID?" is what she asks instead.

Sam blows out a breath and then takes out his phone, showing it to her. She reads it and then cracks that stiff smile of hers. "Well," she says, with a spark of amusement. "That's a relief."

"Funny," Sam says, putting the phone away. "What's Bridges' opinion of me legging it?"

Fragile draws a breath and stands up. "Die-Hardman's inclined to let you go," she says. "Figures you've earned it. Hopes you wouldn't, thinks they still need your help, but… he'll let you, if that's what you want. Don't know what he'd think, knowing this," she motions to Lou. "Might change things."

Sam looks up at her sharply. "Does he? Know, that is?"

"No," Fragile says and tilts her head. "And you want to keep it that way, I think."

Sam eyes her warily for a moment and then tugs Lou up, to rest against his chest. He's stripped off his suit and cape, and his cargo – Lou's stuff, no packages – sits in the corner of the cave, where it stays dry. Lou coos in his ear, and Fragile watches him keenly. "Yeah," Sam agrees. "Lou's a Bridge Baby I took out of the pod when she was dead, and she came back to life – I don't know what Bridges would do, finding out. What they'd want to do with her, after."

"She was dead? A repatriate, like you?" Fragile asks.

Sam hums. "I don't know. Not risking it, anyway. I don't want Bridges after me, or her. We're done with 'em."

"Hm," the other porter answers, swinging her umbrella. "I understand," she says and lifts the umbrella, unfolding it with a snap. "But you're sending Deadman into a frenzy, he's worried. You might want to send a message to him."

Sam bows his head a little, nudging his chin against Lou's little shoulder. "Yeah, maybe," he agrees. "Yeah, I will."

Fragile smiles awkwardly at him and then looks around. "You got cargo?"

"Baby stuff," Sam shrugs, glancing at his rack. "Turns out it takes space."

She chuckles. "Where are you heading? I could jump you, one last time. Make your trip shorter," she offers and nods to the rain. "And easier."

One last time? Sam hesitates and then shakes his head. "That thing messes with my head, don't know what it does to Lou now that she's outta the pod," he says. "Not risking that either. But if you still got a ship, I wouldn't mind using that, once I make it to Port Knot."

"Headed west, then." Fragile tilts her head a little. "You can print them now, you know. You didn't know? While you were – away," she says, pointed. "Lockne perfected PCC 3. You can print vehicles with it, if you have materials – trucks, boats, bikes. Along with the stuff from before, of course, and a couple of new things."

Sam frowns. "No, I didn't know that."

"With the chiral network, people are developing more things. Or re-configuring old things into new forms," Fragile says and considers him. "I do have a ship in the harbour, though, if you'd like to use it."

Sam nods. "Thanks. Appreciate it."

They're quiet for a moment, Sam rocking his body slightly to keep Lou content. She's been fed and cleaned recently, though, so she's mostly good – just on the sleepy side now. Should slip under in a moment.

Fragile doesn't look like she's about to leave.

"Was there something else?" Sam asks, wary.

She looks at him, then at the rain outside and then sighs. "I am…" she trails away, twisting the umbrella handle, making the thing spin above her. "I'm prioritising new things now. These will be my last jumps. I'm offering everyone one – one jump, wherever they want to go, and that'll be the last time. You too."

Ah. "Toll's too much?" he guesses.

Fragile nods and looks down. "Don't got much time left, and every jump eats away at it," she says and gives him a smile. "Might step back from delivering too, and just manage. We got more porters now, anyway, buncha new hires at Fragile Express. People are risking it again, moving about again. Might not last, but there's more vehicles, people are making roads, we even have bot deliveries. It's easier than it's been in years."

Sam nods. It is – in the west anyway. East is still, weirdly, lacking roads, but that's probably eventually going to change. More infrastructure means more building, after all. "Desk job, huh?"

She smiles wryly and shrugs.

"Does Fragile Express have a base of operations?" Sam asks thoughtfully. "I thought you were like me. Always on the move."

"We were, but that's changing too, I guess. There's an empty shelter north west of Lake Knot," Fragile says, looking away. "I'm taking it over, see where that goes."

Sam frowns, thinking while rocking Lou lightly. He's pretty sure he made deliveries there. "Peter Englert's place? Never saw the guy in person, but I brought him stuff – did he die?"

Fragile swallows. "In – a manner of speaking," she says. "It was Higgs'. His place. Englert was just an alter ego."

"… oh. And you're taking his place over?" Sam asks with disbelief.

"Seems fitting, don't you think? He took what's mine, I'm taking what was his. It's a decent shelter," Fragile shrugs. "And close enough to Lake Knot that I can keep reins on everything I need to, get supplies and keep things moving, without needing to jump." She trails away and then looks at him.  "What about you, are you thinking of settling down? You could have a place at Fragile Express. There's an opening – so many new hires, they need a trainer."

Sam glances at her and then snorts, shaking his head. "Teaching? Yeah, no, thanks," he says.

"So, settling down it is? You have a place in mind?" Fragile asks curiously.

"No idea yet," he admits. "Somewhere further west, anyway. Think I'll know it when I see it."

"I hope you do," Fragile agrees. "Send me a message once you do, let me know how it goes. It'll be a… relief," she smiles, "to know how you're okay."

Sam gives her a look, and she smiles a little wider. "I'm going to regret that call sign, aren't I?" he mutters ruefully.

Fragile chuckles and turns to the rain. It looks like she's about to jump, but – she doesn't, hesitating. "And one day, if you want to cash in that last jump with me, well…" she shrugs and glances at him. "Hey, Sam?"

"Hm?" Sam asks, still rocking idly.

"I'm glad for you," she says and nods at his chest. "That you got what you wanted."

Sam looks down at Lou. She's fast asleep, lulled into it by all the talking probably, drooling a little trail against his shoulder. She looks snug and warm and content, all the best things. "Yeah," he says, running his hand down her little back and smiling. "Me too."

Chapter Text

It's a slow descent from the mountains to Port Knot eventually. The rain is still going, and though it's much less heavy than it had been on the mountains, there's enough wind to make it almost as annoying. Sam makes the last leg more or less wrapped in the timefall proof cape to keep both the rain and the wind off Lou, who, blissfully, sleeps through most of it.

Then there's Port Knot, sitting enticing and almost deceptively large against the backdrop of the lake itself – though Sam's perspective on cities is kinda skewed in the best of times. porters weren't ever really that welcome inside the cities, after all – there's a reason why distro centers are all on the outskirts. Even with chiralium scrubbers and whatnot, no one wants porters just wandering in and out of places where people live. Makes cities kind of off-putting, unwelcoming places for people like him.

Wonder how preppers are welcomed in the cities…

"Guess we need a plan here," Sam mutters looking down at Lou. Getting in and out of cities was easy with Bridges ID, it opened him just enough doors to make it easy. As a freelancer, it was a bit trickier. As Relief, a brand new ID that has nothing to do with pretty much anything… "Hm."

Sam wonders how he'd done it back when he started out as Sam Porter, after he stopped being Sam Strand. He has no idea. He'd spent many of those early years not really thinking much – and drinking a lot.

Best not go about it that way, with Lou around.

"Guess there's nothing to it but try," Sam says. "And if it doesn't work, I guess we can take Fragile up on her offer."

He'd rather not. Especially if she was really serious about what she said, and he'd only ever get one shot. Better save it, if that was the case, for something that really mattered.

There's some sort of construction happening in front of the city gates, with new kind of trucks moving about. Sam pauses some five hundred meters away to watch – the machines got that gunmetal-grey tint of the freshly printed to them, and they got Bridges logos all over them, so that explains where they'd come from, but it takes Sam a moment to recall what they actually are. It's been… decades since he's seen proper construction machinery. Even trucks were rare, by the time he was contracted by Bridges – now there's excavators again?

They're clearing out the rocky debris in front of the city entrance, making a way for a road, it looks like – or at least, for some kind of vehicle traffic. There's two of the excavators working at it, with a sort of plough tractor evening out the ground behind them. It's not just machines working at it – there's a couple of guys at the perimeter of the construction site, with… BBs.

Watching out for BTs while they're clearing out the area? That's…  Sam runs a hand up and down Lou's back as she dozes off against his chest, loose limbed and cosy under his clothes. He can't really tell what he actually feels about the sight.

On one hand, it's… certainly something, seeing people other than him working at constructing roads. He'd damn near broken his back hauling ceramic, to get that damn road between Lake Knot, South Knot, and Mountain Knot cities going. It's also kind of mindblowing seeing people just… outside, building stuff, or at least clearing stuff out. They don't look like porters, none of them, and there's no timefall shields or shelters, not so much as a carefully pitched tent to protect them – they're just out there, building stuff. That hasn't happened in… decades.

But there's also two guys there, with BB pods.

It takes him a while before he makes his way down to the construction site, where he is immediately hailed by the guards with BBs. "Hey, there!" one of them waves at him, no one he knows, thankfully. "Come on closer, man, it's okay."

"Hey," Sam says, wary, keeping the hood of the timefall cape down so it covers most of his face, just in case. "Is the city closed?"

"No, we're just clearing a path, you can still get around it," the guy says. "You coming down from the mountains? A porter?"

"Just passing through, gonna catch a ship," Sam answers, awkward. "But yeah, I came down the mountain. Problem with that?"

"Only that they're still crawling with BTs, especially when it rains," the second guy with a BB pod says. "You're crazy, man – how'd you get through?"

"I – got low level DOOMS," Sam admits. "Lets me know when to take the long route."

The guy whistles. "That's crazy. You mind if we do a quick chiral scan on you?"

Sam had been trying to stay out of BT areas and the rain, but he's still probably covered in chiralium. But, if he said no, that would probably be much worse than being considered a general health hazard. "Sure," he says, uncomfortable. "Do what you gotta."

The second guy fires up his odradek – a much newer model than the one Sam has, apparently capable of more than just spotting chiral crystals. Whatever he gets out of it makes him whistle again. "Relief, huh? Nice to meet you. Looks like you must've been caught out in the rain. But, uh – you got something under that cape there? Getting a weird reading, like a second heat signature."

"Um," Sam says. "Yeah? I've got a kid here."

The two guys with BBs look at him. "You – got a kid there."

"A baby, yeah. Got her in a harness under my clothes, to keep her out of the weather," Sam says, and nudges at his collar just enough for Lou's head to show. "Promise I'm not smuggling her or anything. She's just – more secure this way."

"Oh, man, you're travelling with a baby?" the first guy asks, amazed.

"You're crazy, dude," the second guy says, shaking his head. "Taking a baby out here?"

Sam makes a face, glancing between their BB pods. "So are you," he mutters, and tugs the cape over Lou's head, patting her back soothingly when she makes a sleepy noise. "Is it going to be a problem?" he asks warily even as he realises the awkwardness of having Lou – and having no identification for her, no ID, nothing. Bridge Babies didn't exactly come with normal paperwork. Not that he even had the paperwork for a normal BB either.

"Um, no, suppose not, it's just… weird. I mean, we get more people here now, it's why we're clearing a way for vehicles for those guys who want to take on the mountains on wheels, but…" the guards exchange a look. "Don't see many who would take a kid out there. Especially not a baby. Not sure if you're impressive as hell, or…"

Sam shifts his footing. "Yeah, well. Whatever it is, I'd rather get in the city all the same," he says. "I got a boat to catch."

"Huh. Heading west to start a new life, or something?"

"Yeah, or something," Sam says, getting more and more uncomfortable with the whole thing. "Guys, I've been walking all day – am I going to be let into the city or not?"

They exchange a look. "Well, they'll be checking you at the gates, it's up to them," the first guard says and then points. "We got chiralgram tape around the site, see it? Just go around it, and you should be clear of the construction. Just be careful of any rocks that might be flying off, these boulders aren't coming out easy so there's the occasional projectile."

"Nice. I'll be careful, thanks," Sam says and then hesitates looking at their BBs. Both are hooked in, but they're dark, he can't see into them, can't see the kids inside – nothing around for the BBs to sense, so they're dormant. He wants to ask, if… if they're new, if they're still making BBs. But that would probably be risky. Give away his identity for anyone who knows his history with Lou – he kinda figures he's the only dumb shit out there who cares about these things.

Maybe he'd write about it to Deadman – from the boat, if he ever got to it.

"Good luck on the construction," Sam says awkwardly. "It looks good." He'd definitely appreciate it, if he was trying to move in the area with a bike. Damn rocks made reverse trikes almost useless in places like these.

"It does, doesn't it? Still getting used to the idea that people want to travel around now, it's wild," the second guard says. "But it's kinda nice too, this whole being connected again thing. Makes it feel like we're a real society again."

"Yeah," Sam agrees and then ducks out of the conversation before it has a chance to continue.

Lou wakes up to the noise of the excavators – one of them is trying to pull a rock the size of a truck from the ground, and the machine's bucket scrapes hard on the rock, making the most godawful noise. It startles Lou inside Sam's clothes bad enough to send her instantly into alarmed crying which Sam can't do much about, with the noise still going.

He quickly jogs to the city entrance, away from the construction, and while the guys at the tollbooths watch, he digs Lou out from under his clothes and goes about soothing her, tucking her against his shoulder and humming the lullaby to her ear as he rocks her. "It's okay, it's okay, I know, I know. Scary noises. It's not BTs, I promise, just big dumb machinery…"

She keeps on crying, the noise is still too close probably, so after a moment of trying Sam heads to the tollbooths.

"God – you're travelling with an infant?" the guard there demands. "What, are you nuts?"

"Probably," Sam says, stroking Lou's little back and rocking her and trying to keep the cape's hood covering most of his face. "Any chance we can speed through the entrance? The diggers are setting her off."

"Yeah, yeah. Need an ID, first," the guard says. "And where you're headed – the distro center?"

"Harbour," Sam says, taking out his phone and sliding it through the gap in the bulletproof glass. "Catching a ship to Lake Knot – Fragile Express boat, there's at least one in the harbour."

"Oh, you're Relief? Yeah, their rep sent a word ahead, told us to expect you," the guard says, while scanning the phone. "New ID?"

Sam coughs and doesn't answer. He doesn't know how strict they are about those things now, with the whole UCA thing being more official. Before, anyone could call themselves anything they wanted and who was to say otherwise. But with the chiral network you can actually do background checks on people. And brand new IDs are probably worrisome.

But then, there's probably a lot of people who don't even have IDs of any kind. It's been a long ass time since they were really necessary anywhere, other than the Knot Cities anyway. Preppers are still able to pass as nothing but as vague identifiers, after all, and no one's demanding birth certificates or anything from them. So maybe…

The guard considers him and then Lou and hums. "Right. I'll clear you to the harbour, but only to the harbour," he says and adds chiral tags on his phone. "No access to the city. That good?"

"Perfect. Appreciated," Sam says, accepting his phone back with a sigh of relief.

"The way to the harbour is just straight ahead," the guard says, pointing. "Just through the gates there, your tags will let you get through the barrier once, so make sure you have everything you need before going through."

"I will. Thanks," Sam says and heads onward before the guys can get a closer look at him. He knows people in Port Knot – fighting and beating the first BT right there, just at the city limits, kind of made an impression. He'd rather not test to see how well his face stuck to people's minds – especially since Victor Frank would probably have a piece of his mind to give Sam over the whole cutting ties thing.

Wonder what the guy would think about Sam getting Lou out. Not that there was actual connection there, blood wise, but… there wasn't one between Sam and Lou either, and they're definitely bonded. Maybe Victor would feel something over it. Lou was his dead brother's BB first.

Just thinking about it makes Sam feel exhausted and anxious. Better just... not.

"Sh-sh-sh, we're almost there. No more big machines, you hear?" Sam babbles to Lou. "No scary noises, it's okay, it's okay…"

She's still a bit fidgety by the time he makes it to the harbour barrier, to find Fragile there, waiting for him. Sam frowns at her a little, rocking Lou. "Thought you'd just jump ahead," he comments. "Or are you already limiting jumps?"

"Yeah. And I could use a break," Fragile shrugs, smiling. "We're transporting a lot of goods this time, new tech developed in Capital, they need a guard. You never know. Ready to go, Sam? It's just you we're waiting for, now."

Sam hesitates, glancing at Port Knot. Never got to know the city that well, there was never the time. The Eastern Region was his territory for years, though – before Bridges became big, before PCCs or cuff-links, before BB and the voidout that took Central Knot. Mostly his work was going back and forth between Capital and Central, doing one or two trips a day maybe… with the occasional stop in smaller hold-out spots of civilisation in between, not that there were many. Feels like it was years ago, now.

Kinda was, too.

"Yeah," Sam says, wondering if he'd ever set a foot this side of the lake again. "Yeah, I'm ready."

Fragile smiles, awkward and stiff. "Let's go then," she says. "Come on. I'll show you to your cabin."


 

Sam spends most of the trip indoors this time – it's windy as hell up on the deck, and while it's something he himself enjoys, it's not so good for Lou. As it is, it gives them both an opportunity to see how she likes being by herself, for a bit – not in his lap or strapped to his chest, but lying on his bed, little ways away, by herself.

Turns out, neither of them likes that as much. Sam's been holding her for so long that it feels just wrong to lay her down and not even touch her. Lou looks confused and unhappy with it too, wringing her hands and feet and reaching for him helplessly. D-Dog pacifies her a bit, but they're neither of them as good apart as they're together. Sam has the vague impression that he shouldn't be teaching her to be so dependant, but – fuck it.

He's dependant too, and holding Lou is infinitely nicer than just looking at her. And anyone who says he's doing it wrong can just fuck off.

"You really love her, don't you?" Fragile asks.

Sam glances at her from where he's laying on the bed, Lou happily nestled to his chest. Fragile is leaning on a wall by a little port window, looking between it and him. No shiny display cases here, no terminals, nothing – it's just a blank room with barely a shower. No connectivity, no chiral network here, no chiralgrams. Nothing to serve as distraction.

"What's with you and that?" he asks. She always sounds vaguely accusing when she says that, love.

She shrugs. "Never been good at it myself. Forging bonds and all that," Fragile says, shrugging. "Or children."

"Mhh," Sam hums in agreement, taking Lou's little hand in his and watching her curl her fingers around his fingertip. She's got a strong grip, for something so small. "Read about that, in the archives. Not many people are good with it anymore. Making families, having kids. Happened before, but Death Stranding made it worse."

"I suppose," Fragile says, folding her arms and looking at him. "Isn't it terrifying? Being in charge of something so… fragile?"

Sam snorts, and rubs Lou's little fingers between his gently, while she chews on D-Dog's ear and coos. "Fuck yeah, it is," he agrees. "But worth it."

"I'm almost jealous," Fragile hums and looks away. "I don't feel that at all. They say people should have more kids, now, that it's our duty to repopulate the country. I think it's bullshit."

"Yeah," Sam says. "It is."

Fragile is quiet for a moment, almost hesitant. Then she shakes her head. "I'll leave you to it," she says, turning to the door.

Sam looks after her, wondering. Whatever her hang-up is, it's not his business – nor does he particularly care. Might be just a societal thing, women, babies, all that communal expectations crap. He's not about to force Lou on her again, not when it obviously made her uncomfortable the last time. Speaking of which…

Lou wiggles on his chest to turn around, and he helps her lay on her belly instead – her preferred sleeping position, when not in a sling or a harness. After a moment of watching her little face as she grips D-Dog with one hand and sucks the thumb of the other, Sam hums the lullaby to her, easing her the rest of the way to sleep.

Then he reaches for his phone. There's a couple of mails – one from Ludens, other from the Musician. Sam ignores both for now and keys in Deadman's ID, making a new contact. It's blank on the phone, no photo of the guy, but it feels almost final, just typing it in. Like he's re-establishing a connection there. Which he probably is. Whether it's worth the risk…

Mail over the network goes into the Archives now, especially with Bridges employees like Deadman. With all the crap that turned up at the end of the whole expansion of the network, Bridges is under more scrutiny than ever. Die-Hardman being the president makes things kinda weird and kinda awkward, probably – the guy's been in charge of keeping secrets for so long, that it's probably a way of life now. But he's still the director of Bridges, and now the President of a would-be-country, and… yeah. Deadman's mail is probably being screened.

Sending a message starting with Hey, it's Sam is probably a bad idea. And any mention to anything anyone would know about…

Sam's never been one for sending messages that couldn't be summarised in a single symbol, and even then he rarely bothered. Sending a whole coded message, letting the guy know they're alright, how the hell is he supposed to do that?

Lowering the phone, Sam looks down at Lou, shifting a little where he lies to get a pillow under his head. She's no help, of course, but… looking at her helps

After a moment of watching her sleeping face, Sam holds the phone to them both, and takes a picture of himself and her on his chest. It comes out a little crooked but it captures them both, and damn Lou looks so small… She looks cozy, though, and cute in her little clothes. There's a hint of fine hair on her head now, pale and so thin it's almost invisible, but it's growing. She's growing.

Hm. He can't send the photo, obviously, but…

Sam considers her and then reaches for his cargo rack, for the odradek, connecting his phone to it. The scan of the thing washes over them both in a burst, lighting the room momentarily with blue light, and then Sam has all their scannable info on the screen – including Lou's weight and size, and damn, she's so small, it really brings it home, seeing it in numbers. But she's grown, too. Just a little, a couple of millimetres and a few grams, but she's grown. And if anyone would know the difference…

So, that's what Sam sends. No words, no messages, just Lou's size.

38.12 cm and 1123 grams.

Deadman would get it.


 

Sam doesn't see Fragile on the ship until a few hours before they make it to Lake Knot. She comes to see him in the cabin, where he's idly playing the harmonica for Lou's entertainment.

"We'll be at the city soon," Fragile says, hesitating at the doorway. "They'll be doing a cargo inspection – do you want to try and slip out? Likely the harbour master will know your face. You're famous, after all."

"Am I?" Sam mutters, making a face.

Fragile gives him an apologetic smile, swinging her folded umbrella in hand. "A little better known in the west than in the east, anyway. Building the roads does that, I'm afraid."

Sam shakes his head. "I'd rather not be seen, if that's all the same. I just want to get a move on, not cause a fuss."

"Then I'll help you through," Fragile promises and hesitates. "I was thinking of offering you place at the shelter, with me. It needs cleaning up, but there's space, it's secure and out of the way. Pretty safe. But…"

Sam looks at her and then puts the harmonica away, tucking Lou into his lap. "Too much for ya, huh?"

Fragile lowers the umbrella a little and shakes her head.

Sam waves a dismissive hand at her. "Don't worry about it – don't want staying near Lake Knot anyway," he admits. "I'll go further west, I think. I want to go somewhere where there's stuff growing, you know. Green stuff. Sick of looking at bare earth."

Fragile smiles at that. "No offence intended," she offers. "But I don't want kids."

"No offence taken," Sam snorts. He wouldn't have taken her up on her offer even if she had been for it. Living with her would be just weird, never mind counterproductive to his intention of getting away from all the mess. He likes her, but… not that much. "It's fine, don't worry about it."

Fragile nods and relaxes a little. "Well," she says. "I think we better start getting ready to disembark."

With her help, Sam and Lou slip out of the harbour without anyone paying them too much mind – with a last "Good luck, Sam," Fragile distracts the guards and the harbour master with her cargo, speeding it through inspections, and so no one even notices Sam heading for the stairs. From there, getting out of Lake Knot is pretty easy – people are more worried about incoming traffic than outgoing one, and they're let through the gates with just a cursory scan to see if Sam's carrying weapons.

"Thank you for visiting Lake Knot, hope you have a safe journey," someone calls after him, as Sam turns his eyes to the road ahead. And it really is a road – the one he built even. And there's people on it, a couple of porters and travellers, queuing up to gain entry to the city. Some of them look… vaguely familiar. Like maybe he'd seen the porters while out, doing his runs.

… maybe he should think about getting a mask.


 

Weather is a little better in the western region, though not by much. There's still the occasional shower of timefall, but it tends to come thinner over the rocky plains than it did back in the east, where it came down by the bucketful. Sam takes his time wandering through it at first, going from timefall shelter to timefall shelter, and taking his time to keep Lou content, dry, and fed.

"It's good to be out and about again, huh?" he asks and peers at the rain. "If it would just stop raining, it would be great."

At least it's not a bad place to spend time in, the shelter. It's an upgraded one, and there's music playing there, to entertain the people stuck taking shelter from the timefall.

He ends up spending the night in another timefall shelter near the road – this one a quiet one, no music. It's a cold and wet night, and Lou wakes up twice in the middle of it, cranky and unhappy. Sam resorts to pacifying her with the harmonica while feeding her both times, though she's obviously not happy with the situation. And he isn't either.

"I think we're going to need a vehicle," Sam mutters while rocking and stroking her. It looks like the rain is letting up a bit, but it's a long ass way to get anywhere in this region, the distances are huge. Going about it on foot, it would be a month before he got anywhere. Maybe a week until he got to a next prepper. It's enough to make him miss being part of Bridges, a little. "This is ridiculous."

So, the next morning he pulls on his timefall cape and then sets out scanning the terrain for something to use. The last time he was here, there'd been few abandoned vehicles, left behind by porters who were just figuring out how to drive and ended up getting their trucks and bikes into situations they couldn't get them out of, wedged up on rocks, or down in holes. Sam could sympathise, he'd abandoned a vehicle or two, too. Sometimes it was just easier to leave the thing behind to rust and rot and go print a new one, than try and figure how to get it out. Printing a new one is what Sam would've preferred to do too, but…

Beggars and choosers and all that.

It's four hours of scouring the rocky terrain before he spots one – a nearly rusted through red truck, stuck in a hole in the ground, wedged in just so that the driver hadn't been able to get it out. Sam considers it thoughtfully, but – he doesn't really have much of a choice here, does he? "Let's see if we can get this thing out…"

Short answer, not easily. Long answer in six hours of shifting rocks and digging, hopping in and out of the truck to try and jostle it out before doing some more digging. Lou follows the whole thing with mix of sleepy fascination and irritation, Sam tries to get enough traction under the truck's back wheels to get the thing out. It's damn near the middle of the night by the time he finally manages to nudge the truck just so that it finally comes loose.

"Fuck, yes," Sam groans, easing the truck back away from the hole and then putting it on park. It's got two broken windows and only a sliver of battery left, but they got a ride. And there's a generator not far off, should be able to make it. "Now we're getting somewhere."

Lou wiggles her feet at him, catching on his excitement, and Sam pats her back. "Let's see if we can get this thing to a generator…"

They make it, just barely – the battery is on full red by the time the charging starts. With a relieved sigh, Sam sits back to wait, eventually deciding it's too damn late and too damn dark to get on the road. "Well, it's shelter enough for the night," he muses, considering the broken side windows and then shaking his head. Wouldn't be the first time they slept in a broken truck, just the first time they did it with Lou outside the pod.

"What do you think?" Sam asks, while setting the backrest to lean back, wrapping his arms loosely under Lou's weight, to support her better. "Better than nothing, yeah?

She coos, tugging at his shirt. He takes that as a yes, and settles down on the seat, making himself as comfortable as he can. They'd need supplies, the Engineer might be able to provide. He's running low on baby formula and diapers too, Lou's using them up fast. Maybe some warmer clothing for her too…

Sam sighs, closing his eyes. He's just about to slip into sleep, when in his pocket his phone buzzes with an incoming mail. He thinks of ignoring it for now, but… there's only so many people who can message him anyway. Might be Fragile, giving him a heads up on something.

It's not. It's Deadman – sending him a whole slew of hearts and likes.

Chapter Text

"… man. I mean, I get it, of course," the Engineer says, while offering Sam a hot cup of something that smells like spices. "My parents became preppers for a reason, so. Yeah, I get it. But man… You of all people?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sam asks, looking up from Lou, who is happily drinking her freshly printed formula.

"I don't mean it, like, a bad thing, I just figured you'd settle down in the Capital, near Bridges?" the Engineer says. "I've been trying to pluck up the courage to see if I could head there myself – all the big research is happening there now, or in Mountain Knot. I do what I can here, but – mine's just a shelter, I don't have exactly the best equipment at my disposal here. Why'd you want to settle out here, in the west, when you could've stayed in the east, where everything is?"

Sam looks at him warily and then shakes his head, taking the cup in his free hand. "Not everything. East isn't that much better than west – worse, really. They're only starting to think of building roads there," he mutters and takes a sniff. "Didn't want to stay with Bridges, didn't want to stay near Bridges."

It's not half bad, the stuff in the cup. It's warm, anyway – that's kinda rarity for him. The warmest dinners he gets outside are cryptobiotes. Warm drink is kind of a novelty.

The Engineer rubs his hands together, looking troubled. "But – why not?" he asks, looking between him and Lou. "You put the whole thing together, the chiral network – and everyone knows it was you who stopped the whole thing, when sky went weird on all of us? After all that, for you to leave Bridges behind, I just… why? Is there something… wrong with Bridges?"

Sam hums, draining half of the cup before setting it down. He can feel it warming him all the way down – it's nice. "S'not that," he says roughly. Except it kind of is. "It's complicated. Every outfit has its problems, right? The ones I have with Bridges probably wouldn't bother most people."

"But – that there are problems at all…" the Engineer trails away, looking at Lou.

"It's mostly with the shit they've done in the past," Sam admits. "Figure things will change now. They better, after what we did. But I just… don't feel like sticking around to wait for it."

The Engineer still looks troubled, tugging at his fingers. "Gotta say, man, it doesn't make me feel that confident about the whole thing," he says. "I was all for the UCA, I still am, but for you to leave…"

Sam sighs and shakes his head. "UCA's probably going to be fine. They're on the right track, got the right people doing some of the right things," he says ruefully. "I'm just not one of them anymore. It's… mostly on me, not them." Plus the whole thing with Lou, of course, but he's not about to get into that.

"You know, my parents, they set this shelter up when they started feeling like the government no longer had their back. Or anyone's back, really," the Engineer says, looking away. "People had to look out for themselves, and the things that mattered to them the most. I was born in this place, grew up here, the furthest I've gone is just a hundred meters away from the shelter door. I always – I wanted to go out, but they were so wary that even after they died, I didn't. I thought the UCA would be different."

Sam sighs. He really doesn't want to play the advocate here, but – the Engineer is good people. His inventions saved Sam's ass more than once. "It is," he says. "The talk of pulling the country together, it wasn't just talk. They do look after their people."

"Why not stay then?"

Sam bows his head and looks at Lou.

The Engineer looks between them. "It's… still not a place to raise a kid?" he asks.

Sam shakes his head. "No, it's probably much safer in the cities," he says. "I'm just not cut out for it. Porter, you know? Became one for a reason, and it wasn't so I could get a cushy place in a big city."

"… oh," the Engineer says, blinking. "Oh, yeah. There's so many porters going about their business now that I kinda forgot. It takes… a special sort of person."

"A nutcase, in other words," Sam mutters and eases the teat from Lou's mouth. She's just chewing on it idly now, not drinking. "S'that better?" he murmurs, and lifts her up carefully, to rest against his shoulder, patting her back gently. She's pretty good at not swallowing air with her formula, but better safe than sorry.

The Engineer watches them with a thoughtful, distant sort of expression, obviously thinking something else.

"What was it like, growing up in a shelter?" Sam asks.

"Uh, don't really have anything to compare it to. It was – what it was," the guy says and shrugs. "Small, crowded, never enough space, every cubic meter had to be carefully managed. Materials too, everything had to be saved and preserved – granted, this was before Fragile Express even started running shipments around here. It was a rare month we got anything, and even then it was rarely anything useful. We didn't have even the basics of the chiral network back then either, so… no connection to the outside world."

"Sounds rough," Sam comments, stroking Lou's back as she lets out a little hiccup.

"It was boring enough to drive a kid mad, let me tell you," the Engineer snorts. "It's why I started tinkering – there was never enough to do. Started taking our broken machinery apart, stuff like that, out of boredom. I guess that won't be a problem now, with the network up and running, and porters going around."

"Hm. So crowded and boring," Sam comments.

The Engineer shrugs. "For me it was, anyway. Then my dad died and we sent his body out to be burned, and it was – too much space. When my mom died… Even a small shelter seems big, when there's no one but you in it."

Sam swallows and looks down. He'd grown up in Central Knot City – though it wasn't called that back then, Knot's only became a thing later on. He can't remember much of it now, timefall and chiralium had eaten away at those memories over the years, until he was left with only this vague memory of isolation and strangeness. As President Bridget Strand's adopted son, playing the much poorer second fiddle to Amelie, who turned out to be what she was…

Probably better he doesn't remember.

"So you thinking of building a shelter?" the Engineer asks. "Whereabouts?"

"Dunno yet, further west," Sam says. "Somewhere with grass, I think."

"There's a bit of grass here," the Engineer points out. "I'm even thinking of maybe getting a little garden going on just outside, trying some of the Elder's and the Timefall Farm's methods, see where they get me."

Sam smiles wryly. "A bit more grass," he amends and shakes his head. "No offence, but after running so many deliveries through this place, I am sick of the terrain."

"I wouldn't know," the Engineer snorts. "But I'll take your word for it."

Sam snorts, and in that moment Lou upturns a mouthful of formula on his shoulder, letting out a little gurgle. Sighing, Sam leans her away from himself and looks over the stain. "Really?" he asks her, and she hiccups in answer. "Yeah, okay – you got a rag or something?"

"Yeah, yeah," the Engineer says and quickly reaches for one, handing it over. "Here."

It's oil-stained and looks a bit like someone had used it to polish gears.

"Um," Sam says, looking at him. "It's a baby, not an engine. How about a clean one."

"Aw, man, shit – sorry, lemme just…" the Engineer gets up and fetches a towel still fresh in its package.

Sam nods his thanks and uses the towel to gently wipe Lou's mouth and chin while she tries to blow spit bubbles at him, before cleaning his suit. "Next time, don't drink so much you hurl," Sam says to her, while setting her to sit in his lap, her back to his belly.

The Engineer watches them with a strange look on his face, hugging himself. Sam casts him a glance and the man makes a face. "It's just – I've never actually seen a baby before?" he admits, a little uncomfortable. "Are they always so small?"

"Uh, no. Lou's – premature," Sam says. "She was born too early." Or too late, depending on how you count it. She's been out of the pod for almost two weeks now. 28 weeks-old fetus in pod, who knows how long in without aging or growing, and two weeks out – does that make her 30 week old, 2 week old, or… what? He has no idea.

Shit, should've marked the day he got her out, that's technically her birthday. Well, it's the same date as Die-Hardman's inauguration, so… he could check the date later.

"Oh," the Engineer says. "So it's just that she's extra small."

"Pretty much," Sam says and glances at the guy. He looks kinda nervous. "She doesn't bite. Doesn't even have teeth yet."

"Oh, it's not that," the Engineer says. "I just – I don't know anything about babies. No one's exactly ever come here with one, for obvious reasons, and uh. Yeah. It's just – it's new."

"Well, you won't have to worry about it. We'll be out of your hair soon," Sam promises.

"No, no, nonsense," the guy says, shaking his head quickly. "No, you can stay longer than that. I was actually thinking, I could maybe make something for you, um. Also, since you're thinking of making a shelter, maybe I should put together a proper shelter kit for you."

Sam hesitates. "Like – a PCC?"

"Yeah – and no. I haven't actually seen those PCC shelters, myself, but they seem kind of small," the Engineer says. "You'll probably want something bigger, right, with rooms, kitchen, storage rooms, stuff like that? A proper shelter? I can do that, I definitely got some extra materials for it."

"You don't have to do that," Sam says, frowning.

The guy shrugs. "My material stores are actually kind of full. Since my shelter is the closest to Lake Knot City, a lot of people stop by here, just to get rid of their broken and used items, recycle their trash and stuff. Plus, I get materials for the exoskeletons and stuff I make, so I'm pretty well off these days. I can spare it."

Sam eyes him warily. "What does the – shelter kit entail, then?"

The Engineer turns away, going to his printer terminal. "It's kind of like PCC, but much older tech. It was developed early on, not much after chiral printing got started – we've done some tweaks to it along the way, but the basics are the same. A portable printer – a lot bigger and heavier than your usual PCC – and a bunch of materials. You'll need a place which either gets high precipitation, water or snow, or is near to a water source, though – thing comes with plumbing and filtration systems, but you can't make water out of thin air."

Sam stands up with Lou tucked against his chest, to watch over the Engineer's shoulder as he turns through the basics of the printer. It's really not like PCC – this thing is huge, weighs nearly a hundred kilos, and it can only make the one thing. The only tweaks you can make to it is room sizes and layout, really.

"Obviously, the more materials you have, the bigger the thing you can make," the Engineer says. "You put in the design, feed in the materials, and the printer will do the rest. Fair warning, though – don't put it down a hill. On top is better. These things are solid, but if the entrance gets flooded, that's a problem even for the best shelter."

"Huh," Sam says. He'd wondered about why all the shelters look kinda the same, but it hadn't really clicked that they too were printed. Of course they would be – doing your regular old-fashioned construction is hard, and costly, with timefall.

"The shelter will last you maybe five years, more if you do good maintenance on the entrance," the Engineer says, folding his arms. "Though you can extend its life that much longer if you manage to build the thing in a place that gets less rain – or fully underground. Some people do that, finding ravines and caves and plopping their things down there. Natural shelter, no timefall – extended lifespan."

"Nice," Sam says, while thinking about the terrible placement of the Cosplayer's shelter. Damn, the place was annoying to get to, he almost drove a truck right into that damn pit. Apparently there was a perfectly reasonable explanation why it was placed where was. Except that it was… basically in a valley.... "Wait, how long has your shelter lasted? You said you were born here."

"Well, here as in this place, but not here, as in this specific shelter. This isn't the original one, that one was lost to the timefall years ago," the Engineer explain. "This one is about fifteen years old – maybe sixteen by now? I keep it in good condition by recycling the outer panels every year."

"Huh," Sam says. "So, either dry place, or a cave would be the best. But… close to water. Hm."

The Engineer hums in agreement and looks at him. "I can code in the shelter design here, if you'd like. Get it all ready"

Sam hesitates. It's been… over ten years since he had a house and he can't remember anything about the place. Bridges' private rooms don't really count. "Just a basic thing maybe?" he asks uncertainly. "Don't think I need much."

The Engineer looks at him. "Trust me," he says. "You think that now, but give it a year or two, and you will run out of room. If you can afford the upkeep, always make a bigger shelter than you think you need – you will never have too much space. Trust me – that's how I always felt as a kid."

Sam bows his head a little, looking at Lou. "Right," he says. "Big shelter it is. Oh, and, actually," he says. "How much can you actually control what goes in there?"

The Engineer motions to the terminal. "Have a look. They're pretty versatile – and, if you're not in a hurry… I could probably slap together something new for you, if you have something in mind."

Sam leans in to look at the terminal, squinting at it while Lou tilts her head to watch. There's a couple dozen different room designs in there, with a selection pulled to the side as selected. Kitchen, pantry, storage, cold storage, material storage, living room, three bedrooms, toilet and bathroom – that's apparently the basic set. It's a lot more rooms than he thought. "No garage?"

"Most preppers don't need one, we're not exactly known for moving around," the Engineer comments, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Think I could work one out for you, but we'd have to customise the entrance, make it big enough to drive a truck through."

"I'd appreciate it," Sam nods, and then pulls up a chair to look through the other options. There's one thing he'd like if he could choose – a bit of a luxury, which, honestly, was the only reason he got through the mountains with all toes and fingers intact. And… it doesn't look like it exists.

"Damn," he murmurs, disappointed. "Not an option, huh?"

"What are you looking for?" the Engineer asks, curious.

Sam shrugs, rueful and a little embarrassed. "A hot tub."


 

Sam's stay with the Engineer is the longest so far – nearly four days, most of it spent working through the shelter schematic, along with some other things to do with Sam settling down, somewhere. Turns out, there's more to living in a shelter than he realised. Carbon scrubbers, water filters – and most preppers have some kind of indoor greenhouse, for growing something to eat.

"But can't you get anything you need by printing?" Sam asks. "You just enter in the blocks of condensed food stuff and the printers turn it into some kind of edible thing, right?" That's how Lou's formula happens too – raw food material, proteins, vitamins, minerals and whatnot, along with resins and polymers for packaging, slapped together by a printer.

The Engineer shakes his head. "Eat nothing but printed food for a year, and you really, really start craving something, anything that's fresh," he says. "I'm bad at growing plants, but even I grow some greens and herbs just for the flavour and the mouthfeel. You don't know what food even is until you've tried something like a fresh strawberry or a fruit. Compared to printed stuff, they're otherworldly. Plus, it does give materials for the food printer too."

Sam glances at him warily, and decides not to ask. Straw sounds a bit too close to a strand for him. "Right. Add a greenhouse then."

The house keeps getting bigger, as the Engineer keeps suggesting things. Already it has a garage, three bedrooms, living room, library, kitchen with a pantry and cold storage, both of which Sam thinks might've tripled in size while they were reshuffling of the designs. Then there's bathroom with separate hot tub room, toilet, baby room, material storage… it's starting to look kind of big.

"I mean – if anyone could keep a shelter this big running, it'd be you, right?" the Engineer asks. "If you run out of something, you just can pop out and get some. The rest of us, we're at the mercy of porters. Which, granted, is a bit less terrifying these days, but still."

Sam hums. There's that, he supposes. "You know, it's not so bad outside anymore," he says. "If you can get a truck, you can keep well clear of timefall – the trucks come with chiral filters, so the air inside is clean."

The Engineer grimaces at that. "I don't even know how to drive," he says ruefully. "No, when you've lived your whole life indoors, underground… it's not that easy. I don't… I don't think I'm up for it. Hell, I can't even talk myself into going to Lake Knot, and it's not that far away from here – it takes me days to talk myself into going out to change the panels."

Sam eyes him and then looks away.

"And the timefall is still… falling," the Engineer adds. "The chiral clouds still roll about. We might be able to predict it a little now, we might have roads, and weapons that work on BTs, but…. once timefall hits you, that's that. Nothing fixes that. When chiralium gets into your brain… you don't get those neurons back."

Sam frowns and looks away, at Lou who is dozing against his chest, snug in her harness. "Yeah," he murmurs, stroking her back. "You don't."

The Engineer looks at him. "Sorry, I didn't – I didn't mean…"

Sam shrugs and wraps his arms loosely around Lou. "It's fine – and you're right. Nothing fixes it."

The Engineer gives him a sympathetic look and then looks back to the house schematics. "So, uh. I think this is about done. And I think you need a lot more materials to get this down than you can take out in a truck."

Sam blows out a breath. Close to ten tons of special alloys… "Yeah," he agrees wryly. "It's a bit much."

The Engineer chuckles sheepishly. "I think we got a bit carried away," he admits and looks at him. "But I bet if you asked, most everyone would pitch in for you. I mean – it's you."

Sam hesitates. "Well," he murmurs, frowning.

"I can contribute a ton, maybe a ton and a half, easily. Bunch of chiral crystals too," the Engineer says. "Though you will have to haul it yourself, or maybe use the bots," he hums. "Any idea where you're putting this thing down yet?"

Sam blows out a breath, stroking his fingers through Lou's fine hair as he thinks. He wanted to stay under the radar and not make a splash – this seems like a big splash. He should've settled for something smaller – two, three rooms, maybe, it would've been enough for him and Lou, right? But now that he's seen the sort of stuff he could get if he put effort into it… after so long on the road, with nothing much to call his own…

Yeah. He's hauled more stuff for less of a cause.

"I'm thinking, somewhere around the Weather Station maybe," Sam says. "In the hills there, there's some ledges there, they could work as further shelter for the entrance…"

"Rains a lot there, doesn't it?" the Engineer asks.

Sam shrugs. "Not as much as in some other places," he says. "It's warm, it's nice, and it's so damn removed that few people ever get up there. Seems perfect to me."

"Well. If you say so," the Engineer says. "Seems like a tough place to get porters to but… you'd know better than me."

Sam doesn't answer, sighing. "So, you can get me materials to get started?"

"Yeah, and print out the printer itself, if you're good with the layout," the Engineer says. "It'll take you a while to gather the materials for this."

Sam hums. Yeah it would, but so had the building of the road to Mountain Knot City. It would give him something to do, anyway. And something to look forward to. "Yeah," he says. "Print it out, please."

"Sure thing," the Engineer says. "Anything else you need?"

"Baby stuff," Sam says ruefully and looks down at Lou, who is sleepily mouthing at his shirt. "A lot and a lot of baby stuff."

It takes a while to load everything up in the busted up truck. The Engineer is more than generous with him, offering him everything he needs and then some. The special alloys for the shelter take most of the cargo space, but Sam gets some other stuff too, things he'd left behind at Capital Knot City. Anti-BT weapons, mostly, and couple of PCCs.

"You know, I've never helped another prepper get started," the Engineer says, helping Sam carry the Shelter Printer out and to the truck. "Send them mats and gear, sure, but never had a chance to give someone the leg up right from the start. Feels pretty good."

"I'll pay you back, somehow," Sam promises.

"Sam, man, you rebuilt the roads," the Engineer points out. "You have no idea what a huge favour that was, do you? You brought so much business to my door, I can't even begin to explain it. This, this doesn't even get near to repaying you back for that."

Sam casts him a look. "Well. I needed the roads for myself, too," he muses. "Made my job a hell of a lot easier."

"Made things hell of a lot easier for everyone around here," the Engineer says, shaking his head. "And don't think we don't know it. We were all stranded before, barely scraping by with a delivery once a month at most – now, now I get traffic almost every day! That's… that's awesome, man."

Sam nods, starting to feel a little awkward now. "Okay then," he says. "That's. Good."

The Engineer snorts. "You really don't know how to take gratitude, huh?"

Sam grimaces.

"Call it a favour for a favour, then," the Engineer says. "You scratched my back, this is me scratching yours."

"And this makes us even?" Sam asks awkwardly.

"If you'd like," the Engineer says. "Might still send a thing or two your way, once you have a place to send them to. Oh, speaking of which, I made you something."

Sam hesitates as the guy heads back inside. With the Shelter Printer in the truck, that's pretty much everything – everything he can fit in without loading the vehicle over capacity. He's not sure what else would fit, really.

Lou is looking at the truck, pushing a little away from his chest to look over her tiny shoulder. Then she looks up at him, expectantly – wondering what's the hold up, probably. Sam smiles and strokes her head. "This is stuff for us. Just for us," he says. "Not a delivery to anyone – no, this is for us. For our home. Feels good, huh?"

She thoughtfully sticks her thumb in her mouth, and hums around it. Sam snorts and leans down to press his lips briefly to her hair, breathing in her scent. He's never thought much about people's scent, but Lou – Lou smells great. Smells like the best thing ever.

The Engineer comes out then, carrying with him a packet. "Here we go," he says and grins. "Took me all night yesterday, but I finished it. A prototype of a floating carrier."

"Um," Sam says, frowning. He's had floating carriers before. That is not a floating carrier.

"Ah, right, not that kind of carrier," the Engineer says, setting it to hover – and instead of hovering just a hand's width from the ground, it floats at hip level. The Engineer grins. "This, Sam, my man, is a floating baby carrier – shielded and everything."

The thing unfolds into a sort of blocky baby bed thing, with bedding and everything, and clear shield that goes over it. It kind of looks like it was made of two medium containers smashed together hastily – probably was. It looks sturdy, but not terribly comfortable.

"For, you know, when you need to be going about your stuff, and need your hands free. It'll tether to you like your usual floating carriers and stick near to you – but obviously at higher elevation. Uses more chiral crystals to stay afloat, but I figure it was safer this way. Less risk of it bumping into anything," the Engineer says. "You don't have to use it right now, but I just thought… could come in handy."

"Yeah, maybe," Sam says, even while instinctively putting his hands around Lou to make sure she's staying right where she should. "Maybe… maybe once she's bit older."

"Yeah, sure," the Engineer says, and packs the thing up again – handily enough, it folds into a small package. "Here. Let me know how it works, if you ever use it – I'll tinker with it some more, see if I can make it safer.

"Right," Sam says and accepts the package. "Thanks."

The Engineer nods. "All good to go, then?"

"Yeah," Sam agrees, attaching the package to hang at his hip. "Thanks, Engineer. I appreciate the assist."

"Let me know how it goes," the Engineer says, nodding. "And good luck to you. Stay safe out there, Sam – you too, Lou."

Sam nods, while Lou lifts a hand to wave to the man. "If anyone asks…" he says, coughing.

"If anyone asks, I'll tell them my good friend Relief stayed here for a while, and now he's busy with his own stuff and would rather not be bothered," the Engineer says. "That do for you?"

Sam gives the man a small grin. "That sounds perfect. Thanks. Say bye-bye, Lou."

"Bubu," Lou says.

The Engineer grins delightedly and waves them off enthusiastically from under the shelter entrance, calling, "Write to me when you get there! I want to hear all about it!"

Sam waves back, thinking he just might.

Chapter Text

There was a time when the thought of sticking to one place just made Sam feel antsy, like he's just waiting for something to go wrong. He's been in multiple void-outs, now more than back then, and he's seen people, porters mostly, turning into BTs on the road. It always seemed like a matter of time only – stick around anyplace for too long, and something's bound to go wrong.

It's… it takes some getting used to the idea that not only is he planning on settling down, for good, but he's also looking forward to it. Seeing so many preppers in so many places, all over the place, living their best lives in seclusion… maybe it had an affect. Most everyone in his life is stationary, except maybe for Fragile and Deadman, who moved about a bit every now and then. Maybe seeing them, seeing how safe they all were, it made him a little jealous. Maybe he's finally, at the end of over a decade of deliveries, finally getting tired.

Or maybe it's just the new priorities. He might be fine living on the road, but Lou…? In the pod maybe. It's harder now that there's feeding schedule to keep and diapers to change. Timefall seems worse, when the package he delivers doesn't just rust. He doesn't know what happens to a baby hit by timefall, and honestly, he doesn't want to know.

"Gotta keep on going," he murmurs to Lou, who is fast asleep again. "Yeah. Keep it up, keep it up."

The next shelter would be the Craftsman, and that's a ways away. Between them and the guy there's a whole stretch of mostly abandoned wasteland, with nothing but rocks and rain. The MULE camp that was near the road has been abandoned too – too may porters with non-lethal guns now, probably. There's probably Bridges traffic too, UCA people, and they'd defend themselves with extreme prejudice. Even the MULEs can get their fill of the punishment.

Probably moved higher up the hills, where they're harder to get. The road and a couple of bridges made their camp all open – Sam would know. He raided the place for materials more than once. He's almost tempted to stop by and check if they left anything good behind, but… The truck's already full. So he keeps going.

Even with the road smoothing the way and making it much faster than it used to be without it, it's a long ass drive. Granted, on foot it took him weeks, before the road was built. Even with an exoskeleton, it was a long trek. Now it's smooth riding all the way, and he even passes other people on trucks, both of them slowing down to pass each other without colliding – and that's not counting the people on bikes, or on foot. There's really enough people using the road to call it traffic. Not much traffic, but to see people at all so far of any settlements, shelters or cities…

Makes sense why the Engineer was so grateful. The road really changes things. Hopefully someone figured out how to make more autopavers – they could use more of that. A road from the Distribution Center South of Lake Knot over the fucking ravines just south-east of it, towards the Junkdealer's and the Film Directors' places, that would be a godsent. Would've been appreciated when he was trying to navigate the place without killing himself by falling in the ravines, anyway.

Sam stops by a generator to charge the truck's batteries and to feed Lou, who is starting to wake up, making that whining noise he's beginning to associate with the formula. "How about we stretch our legs a bit, hm?" he asks, once she's done and he's even changed her diaper. Lou mumbles contently, and holding her Sam hops out of the truck, groaning as he feels his spine realigning. "Aw, man. Still, beats walking all the way."

The terrain still sucks. It used to be all flat, here, once – nothing but green fields as far as the eye can see… but timefall's killed everything that ever grew here, stripped the topsoil bare, and voidouts have fucked the terrain six ways from Sunday. Nothing but wasteland left.

"Wonder why is it that someplaces stuff still grows despite the rain, and in other places it destroyed everything down to bedrock," Sam murmurs to Lou, holding her with her back to his chest so that she can look around more easily. "Someone must've done a study."

Makes him miss his Bridges cuffs a little – he had easy access to all sorts of old files on the thing. Not much patience to read through them, but they made time pass quicker in timefall shelters while carrying packages too precious to risk the rain. On his phone he can access some old records with Relief's basic ID, but he doesn't have access to the old, more serious stuff. You need access privileges for those.

Lou coos and kicks her feet against the air, waving excitedly towards some rocks before looking up at Sam expectantly. Sam squints and then scans with the odradek – ah. Someone's dropped a package. "Good eye, kid," Sam comments and looks down at her. "How did you see that?"

Lou babbles nonsense and sticks her thumb in her mouth with great satisfaction.

"Okay then," Sam snorts. "Let's go check it out."

It's tagged for the distro center further south, it looks like – package containing meds. Hm. He's done delivering stuff, but… ah, what the hell. It's a small package, he has space for it – he can drop it at the Craftsman's sharebox, someone else could deliver it the rest of the way.

"Hup," Sam says, picking the thing up with one hand, holding Lou with the other. "Old habits die hard, huh?" he comments, carrying the thing back to the truck.

There's another vehicle coming down the road, heading the way he'd come. It slows down as it comes closer, and Sam squints at it – a Bridges truck. It stalls, but keeps engines running while the driver scrolls down their side window.

"Hey, man," the woman behind the wheel – a porter, by her suit and hood – calls without getting out. "Are you heading south? There's timefall up ahead, real big patch, and looked like it was coming this way. You might want to find a place to wait it out."

"Oh. Thanks, I'll do that," Sam says, waving the package at her.

The woman waves back. "You got anything heading to Lake Knot?"

"Nah. Just a thing bound for south, I'll leave it at the Craftsman's."

"Alright," the porter says. "Stay safe out there. The Deliverer's luck to you!"

The what now? "You too, safe travels," Sam answers, and watches her put her truck in gear, and keep on going. "Okay then," Sam mutters and shakes his head. "I guess we better find a timefall shelter."

Thankfully, there's a lot of those around – people have been slapping them down along the road, at pretty regular intervals. Probably for those porters who still move on foot, so that there's one to every two, three hours of walking. Sam stops by an upgraded one and carefully drives the truck under the plates, so that most of it's under the shelter. With the windows broken, it wouldn't keep the rain out that well, after all.

"Could try and find a safehouse," Sam murmurs, while turning off the engines. "See if they have truck repair systems. Might save us on the way to the hills, later, to have a repaired truck."

Lou blows spit bubbles at that, so she probably agrees.

They end up weathering the night in the shelter, as the chiral clouds roll over them, and then the rain starts, slow and thin at first but growing heavier by the moment. And damn, it's raining a lot these days, isn't it? Was it raining this much, before?

While Lou doses off against his chest, Sam kills time by checking his phone. There's a weather forecast there, and he does have access to some news – and there, he finds an explanation. Due to the phenomenon that occurred two weeks ago, a large amount of chiral matter was dispersed in the air. This, we believe, will cause heavier precipitation for the next several months, as chiral matter in the air is known to cause the accumulation of clouds…

"Guess that explains it," Sam mutters and sighs. And here he was hoping that putting the Last Stranding on hold would make things a bit easier. Guess it just stopped things from getting worse, huh.

Sam checks his mails – one from the Musician, enthusiastically pursuing his thought about music being the key to combating chiralium contamination-related memory loss. The Ludens Fan wrote to him about some figurines he got delivered, how they reminded him of some of the stuff Sam had delivered to him way back when. The Engineer's written to him a couple of things, elaborating on the shelter printer – telling him that it was pretty good at scanning the terrain for viable locations, but to be careful with sandy places anyway – the shelters were known for listing to the side as the sand gave under them.

Sam gives them all a reply - short and awkward, but letting them know he's reading, ending with "appreciate the message." Because he does. Then he hovers his thumb over the mail from Deadman – there's still just the one, with hearts and likes. It's been a few days, almost a week, and… maybe Sam should say something more to him.

He scans Lou with the odradek and then checks his previous message to Deadman. "Damn, Lou," he says, amazed. "You've grown."

39.2 cm and 1298 grams now. It was about a week since the last time he scanned her on purpose. Of course he knows, babies grow, that's a thing they do, but – the numbers really bring it to reality, seeing the actual process. "Nice," he murmurs and then types the measurements out to another mail to Deadman. He hesitates a bit before sending and then, compulsively, adds a 👍 to go along with it. It's a good thing, after all.

This time Deadman answers instantly with ♥️♥️♥️👍👍👍👍😍😭😍.

"Dork," Sam says with a snort, and makes himself a little more comfortable on the driver's seat. He stares at the message until he falls asleep.


 

They spend the night in the timefall shelter, Sam reading the news idly while Lou alternates between sleeping, playing with D-dog, or just watched the odradek, which Sam sets to mobile mode for her. The news are mostly about the UCA, of course – but there's also other news, smaller, unrelated-to-big-world-events news. Like, someone found a selection of old classical books thought lost to history, and had uploaded the whole lot to the free chiral archives for anyone to enjoy. Another news post is about an old school, which is being brought to the chiral network with what remained of their gear and teaching supplies, with a witness account from some oldtimer, who remembers learning the old way. From people, rather than from chiralgram projections of people.

Sam can't remember how his schooling had gone, it was before the widespread use of chiralgrams, obviously. Might've been that he had actual living teachers. He can't remember any of it.

There's event news, too. The news about the chiral network had apparently spread outside of what was the US once. What remains of Canada and what remains of Mexico had both heard of it and had sent representatives to the nearest hooked up Knots, so that they could begin negotiations with UCA about getting access to the tech.

"Shit," Sam murmurs, reading the news report about Die-Hardman having actual diplomatic meetings with foreign representatives. Somehow he hadn't really figured that would be a thing, foreign relations and all that. And… how fucking weird it is that he remembers all this international politics bullshit, but not whether or not he ever went to school?

Probably an effect of growing up in a political household. Ugh.

Sam looks away from the phone, trying not to care about whether the UCA makes friends with what remains of their neighbours or not. But he cares a little. The chiral network brought them some good things, sure, but it also fucked them over on a very fundamental level. Most everyone's Beaches are still all mangled together, he thinks. Heartman, Mama and Lockne had done some adjustments to the network to try and untangle them, but who knows how that's gone. If they now started expanding the network outside the old US territory, and brought more countries in, hell, the whole continent maybe, maybe even more…

What would that do to the world?

And besides… the Knots are built on Bridge Babies. To make more of them, you'd need to make more BBs, too, and who knows what was done to the BBs that became the access keys for the chiral network, anyway. They were different from other BBs somehow, but how, he's not so sure.

Sam's not so cool with that idea, either.

He's still thinking about it, when the rain finally lets up enough for him to continue on his way without the fear of being drenched inside the truck. Lou, sensing his temper maybe, gets a little cranky and whiny, and Sam ends up playing the harmonica for her as they drive, playing BB's theme slowly over and over again until she settles, but he doesn't. He still feels a sort of… unease about it all.

The chiral network is such a double edged sword, isn't it? You can't deny the benefits any more than you can deny the consequences – or the dirt that came with building one in the first place. Are the BBs used as access keys still around, or did they get used up in the process? He'd never dared to ask. Now he kind of regrets not finding out.

"Shit," he murmurs and then tries to set the thought aside. It's another hour, maybe two, of driving before he reaches the Craftsman's place. Better concentrate onto that.


 

Sam ends up taking a detour before making it over. The idea of the network expansion won't leave him be, and he keeps getting more irritated by the idea so… a break, he decides, would do him good. It's been a cold night anyway. Both he and Lou deserve a bit of an indulgence, right?

Craftsman's place has always been one of his favourite locations to visit since he found the place, for one reason – just an hour away, there's a hot spring.

Turns out he's not the only one who's found the place, either. Someone's built a timefall shelter just next to the springs, so that the plates cover some of it – and around the hot springs there are new chiralgrams. Someone has even put up a warning sign, warning people off from peeing in the hot spring. Cute.

Sam and Lou are not the only ones there, either. There's a porter sitting with their back to the timefall shelter, their boots off and pant legs rolled up as they soak their feet in the spring. In the springs there's a man, chest deep in the water, dozing off.

Sam almost considers not stopping, at the sight of them, but… fuck it. He turns the engine off, and with Lou mumbling sleepily at his chest, jumps out of the truck.

"Hey there, brother," the porter in the springs calls. "Come on in, the water's fine."

Sam snorts. "Hey," he says. "You don't mind the company?"

"Nah, man. Springs are for everyone," the guy says. "For people who ain't shy, anyway."

"I'm not shy, I just don't want to get naked with you. I have standards," the other porter says, waving at Sam but not getting up.

"I'm not so bad, am I?" the other porter asks, pouting and then throwing a grin at Sam. "I'm Jason – that over there is Pen. Nice to meet ya."

Sam hesitates. He has his hood off, but it doesn't look like they recognize him. "You too. Name's Relief," he says. "And this here is Lou," he adds, and tugs at his suit lapels a bit to let her show.

"Oh, bro, dude – is that a baby?" Jason asks, and Pen perks up a little, curiously.

"You mind if we get in with ya?" Sam asks.

"No, man, not at all. But bro, a baby. You're travelling with a baby? That's something else."

"Yeah," Sam snorts and then goes about the awkward shuffle of getting rid of his clothes while holding Lou – something extra difficult, since Lou's quickly spotted the water and is getting excited about it. "Yeah, you remember this place, don't you?" Sam murmurs, while trying to hold the wriggling girl and keep her from falling. "Calm down, Lou, we're getting there, we're going in, lemme just…"

"Oh man, a baby," the porter in the spring says. "Can you even bring a baby here, aren't they, like, delicate to temperatures? And aren't there, like, chemicals? Minerals? Something, in the water."

"I've checked, this one is safe for babies," Sam says – because he had, before ever so much as putting Lou's pod in.

While the other porters watch, Sam gets Lou stripped down too, and once they're no longer in danger of soaking their clothes, he wades into the grey-tinted water with her, holding her carefully. Lou wiggles and kicks her feet, squealing excitedly, and with a grin Sam kneels down and lets just her foot try the water.

Lou pauses, yanking her foot out of the water instinctively and looking down. Then she looks up at Sam, uncertain.

"Yeah," he agrees, smiling. "A bit different now, isn't it?"

It's definitely a new sensation for her, the warm water without the pod in the way. Lou gets into it fast, though, kicking and squirming until Sam eases her fully into the water, holding her head carefully over the surface as she excitedly splashes about, wildly swinging her arms and legs everywhere. Adorable.

"Oh my god," the porter in the spring says. "That's – something else."

"Hope we're not putting you off your bath," Sam says, not feeling particularly guilty. Lou's joyous shrieks are too great for him to feel sorry at all.

"No, man, it's just. Ahem. A baby, you know?" Jason says and looks at Pen rather desperately. "You ever seen a baby before, Pen?"

"Once," the other porter says, shuffling closer to the spring's edge. "Not in the best circumstances, though."

Sam glances at the porter, who offers a wincing smile and shakes their head. "Not really appropriate hot springs talk," they say and shrug. "That's a cute one. Lou, huh?"

"Mmh," Sam agrees, keeping his hands loosely around Lou as she tries to swim. She probably can – all she's ever done in the pod is swim – but he'd rather not take risks with her. "So, you running deliveries around here? On foot?"

"Between this area and the distro center further south," Pen says, while Jason does a bad attempt at not looking like he's staring. "It's easier now that there's a road from here to there, but there are some shelters in the area you can only get at by foot, so… still need guys going on foot."

"Right," Sam agrees, keeping his eyes on Lou. "How's it been around here?"

They chat about the local weather, terrain, and the BTs near the old factory area, which have been getting worse of late, apparently. The increased timefall is stirring the known BT areas a bit, it sounds like – and the BTs themselves are drifting about.

"We keep hematic grenades at hand – can't sense them, but you can just about see then when they're coming after you," Pen says. "I've taken out a few myself. Damn if it didn't feel like an accomplishment at the time. But seems like it doesn't… really make much of a dent in their numbers. Always seems like there's the same number in the area."

Sam hums. He's noticed that too, and he knows he's killed more BTs than anyone else – dozens, maybe hundreds. They always came back. "Maybe… it's not that there's a limited number of them here," he says. "BTs cross over from beyond the Beach – maybe there's… a limit to how many of them can manifest. Take out one, and another gets a chance to fill the space."

"What, like they're queueing up from the other side?" Jason asks.

Sam wouldn't be surprised if that was exactly what they were doing. "People died in the millions since the Death Stranding. We didn't burn all their bodies, and not all of them went in voidouts either," he says. "But we don't have millions of BTs, do we?"

"Don't we?" Jason wonders and folds his arms. "I mean, there's at least dozens in the factory area, but… that's just one area. I bet in those old ruins of big cities, there's way more."

"Hundreds at most," Sam says. "And people lived in those places in hundreds of thousands, in millions. Where did all those BTs go?"

"You've been in those old city ruins?" Pen asks, quiet.

Sam coughs. Right, shit. Even the most dedicated porters haven't had to do as much travelling as him. Most of them still stick to their areas – like he had before, running deliveries between Central and Capital. "You never gone from South Knot to Lake Knot?" he asks, awkward.

"It's a month's trip on foot," Pen points.

Right. "Well. I have – there's a couple of BT areas on the route," Sam says. "And sure, there's BTs there, but – not as many as people think. Hundreds, yeah, but not thousands, not millions."

"Huh," Jason says thoughtfully. "You got DOOMS, Relief?"

"Yeah," Sam admits.

"Well, we don't have that either," Pen says and sighs. "It sounds terrifying, and awesome. Hundreds of BTs, man…"

Sam coughs. His perspective on these things might've… gotten a bit weird. "Anyway," he says. "I don't think you can ever fully clear those areas. There will always be more. It's – annoying, but it is what it is."

"Bummer," Jason says, sighing. "So we'll always have to deal with them? Even though we can now kill them? That sucks, man."

Sam hums in agreement, and scoops Lou out of the water so that he can lay back against the rocks with her on his chest. She giggles and shrieks, banging wet little hands against his skin, and then kicks with her feet against the water's surface, making splashes. "Yeah," he says, smiling. "The world sucks, but at least there's hot springs."

"There's that," Jason agrees. "There's that at least."

The porter pair continues on before Sam does, Jason hopping out and shaking most of the water off before pulling on his clothing. "See ya around, Relief," they say. "Good luck to you and the little one."

Sam nods and then, thinking back what the porter on the road says, calls, "Deliverer's luck to you," which makes Pen snort and Jason send him a 👍 before they go on their way, continuing along the road, towards the distro center.

Sam considers getting up too, but… it's just a little ways to the Craftsman, and he's hoping to maybe spend the night there, so there's no hurry. No deliveries, no world on the line, nothing. "Springs to ourselves and all the time in the world," he says to Lou. "Now this is living."

She wiggles her feet and yawns. With a smile, Sam settles back against the rocks, playing with her little feet and humming, "Ba-bam ba-bam bam-bam bam…"

It's a while before he bothers getting up.


 

"You know that ID doesn't really fool anyone, right?" the Craftsman says after Sam's made the awkward introductions, showing him into the shelter. "You've got a distinctive look, Sam – and a lot of people know you."

"Not everyone. Met a couple of porters just now who didn't recognize me," Sam says, shifting his suit a little. The Craftsman has chiral scrubbers in is AC units, so he doesn't mind Sam wearing his jumpsuit inside – any particles get filtered out pretty fast. Sam's still a little wet from the hot springs under his suit, though, so he almost would've preferred to strip it. Well, hopefully he could wash his clothing here.

"Porters rely on scans, and tend to take names at face value – that's how we end up with names like the Craftsman," the prepper comments with a snort while motioning him to continue towards the living room. "Comes with having to cover your face to keep the rain out, I guess. Most other people actually look at other people's faces, though, when they're bare."

Sam hums. "The ID fools people who don't see me – and I don't plan on being seen much in the future. I got it mostly just so that I could send and receive messages and make calls."

"There's that, I guess," the Craftsman says. "But you might do with a mask, too – if you're really intending to keep your identity to yourself, once you settle down. A lot of people wear them, it's not so weird. I could whip one together for you, if you'd like. Wouldn't even be hard."

"Hmm," Sam answers, not sure. He kind of associates masks with Higgs and Die-Hardman, who aren't on the top of his list of people to emulate. Bridget wore one way back when, and… ugh. "Not sure," he admits and looks at Lou. Would she even know him, with a mask on? "I had glasses once that covered half of my face – maybe something like that could work?"

"Maybe, we could look into it," the Craftsman says, showing him to the living room, where the man's wife and kid are waiting. "Sam's here to visit," he says. "Say hi to Sam, Mark."

"Hi to Sam, Mark," the kid says obligingly, grinning, and Sam grins back. Then the boy spots Lou's head peeking out of Sam's suit and his eyes widen. "Is that BB?!" he asks with shock and quickly jumps up.

He's the first one who drew the connection, huh. Instantly too. Kids for you. "Yeah," Sam says, while the Craftsman's eyes widen, and his wife draws a shocked gasp. Sam ignores them and crouches down to get to Mark's level, easing his suit open. "This is Lou. Say hi to Mark, Lou."

"Eeeh," she coos and reaches for the older kid curiously, while Mark leans in, looking fascinated.

"She's not in a bottle anymore," the boy points out.

"No, no more bottle baby. Got a whole outside baby now," Sam agrees amusedly, easing Lou out of her harness so that she can turn to Mark fully. "Go on, give her your finger. She's got crazy strong grip."

The boy does so, and Lou immediately latches on it like a vise. "Oh, oh wow."

Above them, the Craftsman and his wife share a wide-eyed look. "Well," he says, sounding a bit shocked. "I see things have changed."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, while Lou and Mark bond over her trying to squeeze the life out of the kid's finger. Mark probably hasn't seen another kid in person before – and if Lou has, well… they were usually BTs. Things really have changed. "For the better," he says, and smiles.

Chapter Text

There are things Sam doesn't know – or has forgotten – about babies. He knows that. He's done well for himself with Lou mostly thanks to the fact that as a former Bridge Baby Lou might be smaller than your usual newborn, but she doesn't really… read as one. She's got stuff going on newborns don't. She's stronger, for one, can already lift her head despite not being so long out of the pod. She has coordination, babies don't usually get until much, much later – she can control her hands, her fingers, she has a pretty good sense of balance. No strength in her core, though, or legs, she can't sit on her own or anything, but according to the Craftsman's wife – the Artificer – it's almost creepy how articulated Lou is with her hands.

"I've never seen a baby that's able to give thumbs up so young," the Artificer says with a fascinated laugh, as Lou does just that, giggling at her. "Do you know how long she was in the pod?"

"Months before I got her," Sam says, one hand on Lou's belly to support her. "Her records as BB-28 went with Central Knot City, so we're not sure, but it was at least half a year, probably more. And then she was months with me, so… well over a year, probably. Long for a BB, too – they don't usually last to a full year."

"That's terrible, but… maybe, despite not growing, she still developed, as a BB," the Artificer says thoughtfully. "From what I understand, BBs are expected to have some level of… I wouldn't call it reasoning, but the way they function, it's not passive, is it? Otherwise you wouldn't even need them to be aware of anything, right?"

"Yeah, no. Lou, she was always there, working her little butt off as BB," Sam agrees. "Not just sensing BTs, either – once she used the odradek to block bullets for me."

"Really?" the Artificer asks. "That's incredible."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, and runs the fingers of his free hand over Lou's fine hair. "She is."

"Hm. Well, I'm no doctor, the only experience I have with babies is first hand, not… training, you know," the Artificer says. "But I reckon you've done really well with her. She looks healthy and strong, despite being basically a premie. The medical scanner is coming up with nothing wrong. If she wasn't so small, I'd say she's a fully healthy and normal baby girl."

"Still, good to hear," Sam says and looks at Lou. "Fully normal, you hear?"

Lou blows a raspberry and the Artificer chuckles.

Standing a little to the side of them, the Craftsman unfolds his arms. "And, just to make things clear. You're not expecting us to take her?" he asks.

"No," Sam says and pulls Lou into his lap fully, taking her foot in his hand. "Lou's mine, and I'm keeping her. But, uh. You guys, and the Mountaineer and the Mountain Guide are the only ones I know who have kids – and I don't plan on taking Lou up to the mountains."

"And you need help, is that it?" the Craftsman asks.

"Wouldn't say no to advice," Sam admits and looks down at Lou. "I do my best, but… I don't want to fuck this up because I don't know how to do this right."

The couple exchange looks and the Craftsman draws a breath. "Well, we can do that," he says. "I suppose."

"It looks like you've done well for her so far," the Artificer says, soothingly. "You kept her fed, warm, safe and happy. Honestly, that goes a long way. But we'll talk you through what might be coming up. Actually we might still have some baby books around – do we, hun?"

"Hmm," the Craftsman says, considering it. "Well we did – at the old shelter. Lost a lot of old stuff there," he says with a sigh and looks at Sam. "Might be still there, who knows. Obviously, we haven't gone to look, nor have we sent anyone else there, after you."

Sam hums. "Were they any good, the books?"

"They got us through not only Mark's toddler years, but his birth too," the Artificer says, shaking her head. "There was no way to get a doctor here, so we… while I was pregnant, we had porters find us books, any books about childbirth and childrearing, and tried to learn what we could, so that when the time came we could deliver the baby ourselves. It – wasn't easy," she smiles. "But we both survived. And as far as we know, Mark came out alright."

Sam nods thoughtfully. "Sounds pretty damn good, then."

"Don't know if it's good enough to risk it," Craftsman says. "Going to BT territory, that is – without a BB you can't see them anymore, can you?"

"I can sense 'em," Sam says. "I've been without a BB before – it's slower, going around relying just on my DOOMS… but I've taken out BTs just by myself. So…" he trails away with a shrug. Granted, back then he had the cuffs. "Have they added the BT cord severing tech on the network yet?"

"The what?" The Craftsman asks, his eyebrows rising.

"Before she died, Mama made me a set of cuffs with a blade that could sever a BTs umbilical cord," Sam explains. "I… burned them in an incinerator, along with my ties to Bridges. So, I don't have them anymore. But the blade was useful."

"Huh," the Craftsman says, thoughtful. "No, I haven't heard anything about that, Bridges must've not implemented it, or they're playing it close to the vest… How the hell did she manage that, making a thing like that? I mean, we have Anti-BT weaponry now, but they're all based on your blood, Sam, so…"

Sam shrugs. "She used my blood to make them, too. And chiral crystals, probably – it looked like the blade was solid chiralium. I don't know more than that, sorry."

"Hmm. Interesting. Would also be handy to finally have a weapon against the thing that didn't bleed the user dry. As poetic as it is, that we must make sacrifices to kill BTs, it's… not terribly efficient," the Craftsman murmurs, looking fascinated. "Something about your blood – have you ever had a proper biologists look into it, what makes it so potent against BTs?"

"People have looked into it, but they couldn't explain it," Sam says with a grimace. It was because of Amelie, so… it's probably literally beyond anyone's comprehension, how it works. Some likeness between her and him, some… quality she gave him by accident, when making him a repatriate. Whatever. "Do you think you could look into it? The blade was really useful, though I'd prefer it didn't come with cuffs this time."

"I can definitely look into it," the Craftsman says, looking a bit like he'd like to get right on it. "Any chance you'd be willing to give me a sample of your blood again? Not right now, I want to see if I can find anything about this blade of yours in the archives, but later."

"Yeah, sure. It's been a while since anyone bled me, should have plenty," Sam snorts.

"That's lovely," the Artificer says, grimacing. "While you look into that, hun, I'll see if I can give Sam some tips on baby care."

"Please," Sam says gratefully, and Lou coos in agreement.

By the door, Mark peeks his head in. "Are you done talking about bad adult things now, can I come back in?"

"Only if you want to deal with baby poop," the Artificer says cheerfully.

The boy hesitates. "I'm… gonna play my game a bit longer, then," he says and quickly ducks back out of the room, making his mother smile after him.

"He's a bit too young to understand the… whole thing with BBs," she says and shakes her head. "And I'd rather he didn't have to learn this soon."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, looking down at Lou. "I – try to not think about it much myself. Lou's not a BB anymore, but… she was one. And that probably makes her different."

"Probably. I wouldn't know," the Artificer says. "It goes way past anything I've ever learned. My husband, he's all over that hematic weaponry Bridges developed, but me? I… all of it just creeps me out." She shakes her head and then takes a deep breath and smiles. "But I do know what a diaper rash looks like, so, let's have a look, and if there's an issue, I can tell you."


 

The Craftsman makes an anti-BT blade for Sam, a couple of days later. He's a little cagey about how he figured it out – his wife mouths hacking behind his back and sends Sam finger guns – but it looks about right, the blade. It's gold, anyway, like chiralium.

It's also shaped like a sword.

"Seemed the most efficient way to go about it," the man says while handing Sam the weapon. "Sword was one of the oldest standing weapons in human history for a reason – it's tested and true, and if a projectile doesn't do the trick…"

"Hm," Sam answers, holding the thing at arm's length. Well. It looks dangerous, if nothing else. The whole blade looks like it's solid gold, so the Craftsman probably also used a liberal amount of chiralium. And he has to admit, aiming with the cuffs was a bit dicey at times – especially back when he didn't have Lou with him and couldn't actually see the cords, just sort of… sense them. This might actually do better.

It's a bit on the long side though.

"Hun, you're a complete nerd," the Artificer says, shaking her head with a sigh.

"What? It's the most used sword shape in history for a damn good reason," the Craftsman says, perfectly reasonable while his wife rolls her eyes, amused. "Why try and improve perfection?"

"What?" Sam asks, looking between them and the cord cutter. "What am I missing?"

"It's a longsword," the Artificer says, while the Craftsman just folds his arms. "You try living with a guy as into weapons as this one – it all comes down to sticks and stones in the end."

"It's an efficient and practical shape," Craftsman says defensively. "And that's what you want when dealing with something like BT's. I mean, I could've made it into a scythe, but that seemed like taking things too far."

"Um," Sam says, uncertain, while the Artificer snorts. "A… scythe?"

"It's – an old superstition and fantasy," the Artificer says. "People used to think that Death was a sort of entity that would go around collecting the souls of the dead, reaping them with a scythe like so much grass. Scythe being a farming tool for cutting wheat and hay and such."

Sam frowns a little at that, eyeing the… longsword. "Right," he says. The thing still looks a bit too big maybe, and he knows from personal experience that chiralium is a bit brittle… "Well, so as long as it works."

"Well, we won't know if it does until you try it, will we?" the Craftsman asks. "But if it does… it might be a viable style of weapon for other people too – one that doesn't require a steady supply of blood from you. Just a donation every now and then to the good cause of more permanent anti-BT weaponry, and who knows how far we'd get, arming porters and other travellers? Might make a real dent in BT populations."

Sam grimaces at that. "For a while, anyway."

"Even a while is better than nothing," the Craftsman says. "So, what do you say, ready to take her out for a spin?"

Sam hesitates and then looks at Lou. She's sleeping in a crib the Artificer had made for her, hugging D-Dog in her sleep with Sam's odradek propped up as a mobile to keep her entertained should she wake up. It's the longest they've been without skin contact to each other, and it's – what it is. Going further away from her, though… all the way to the Craftsman and the Artificer's old shelter…?

"You don't have to, Sam," the Artificer says gently. "We can teach you everything we know, and we have access to the chiral network, there's all sorts of guides and articles there that will help you. It would be alright."

Sam hums. It would be. But… he does want to try the sword out too. If it works, if it's a viable BT umbilical cord cutter, then… that would be useful. Too useful not to test it, and even if it doesn't work, it could be a step towards a working version. The Craftsman is right – something like that would be handy for a lot of people.

It's worth a try.

And Lou's sleeping, anyway, she wouldn't even know he's gone.  Where would she be safer, really? Between the Craftsman's shelter and Sam's next destination there's nothing but MULEs, BTs and timefall. This is their last port of harbour, so to speak, unless they go to the distro center, and they won't if Sam has his way. This is the only place he can do this at – and really… who else would test something like that out?

"Okay. I'll go test it, see what I can find in the ruins," Sam says finally and swallows, looking a the Artificer. "Take care of her for me."

"As if she was our own," she promises with a comforting smile.

"I'll give you a batch of hematic grenades, in case the sword doesn't do its thing," the Craftsman says. "But here's hoping they won't be needed.."

"Hmm, okay, thanks. Can you print me a bola gun too?" Sam asks, while trying to figure out what to do with the sword. How is he even meant to carry the thing? "Might make things easier for me."

The Artificer, who is checking up on Lou, looks up with a blink. "Do bola guns work on BTs?"

"When I put in strands made with my blood, yeah," Sam says with a shrug. "Doesn't kill them, but it does stop them in their tracks for a bit."

The Craftsman blinks at him. "And you're telling me this now?"


 

Every step away from Lou is hard, but with every step it gets easier too. It's weird – he'd been fine for so long without human contact, and now it feels like he's lacking something, without her weight and warmth under his suit. Feels like he's forgotten something, like he's dropped an important package – like he should go back and pick it up.

"Come on, Sam," he mutters, tugging at his cargo harness, tightening the straps. "It's just in and out. The quicker you get this done, the quicker you can go back."

It still feels wrong. He sets out jogging towards the crater where the shelter is, and that helps some, forcing him to concentrate onto his footing more than on his head. Thankfully it's not far, the crater, a half an hour jog, at most. Not bad as fetch missions go… timefall and BT's aside.

Sam can feel them at a distance and slows his run first to a walk as the timefall starts and then, once his skin starts crawling and going sore under his clothes, he crouches and begins holding his breath. He can – almost sense their direction now. With Lou he'd come in contact with so many of them, that though his odradek no longer reacts to them, he sort of… feels like it does. It's like an echo – a memory. The odradek would turn left here, flap, go red and spin –

Sam takes out the sword and holds his breath, closing his eyes. Almost, almost, it's coming closer, he can feel it, a tar-chill like a chemical stain on his senses – there.

He swings the sword hard, with more force than skill – like it's a parcel he's about to throw in the tar. He feels it along the handle as it swings – the slightest resistance against the blade as it goes through something, stalling a little as it cuts through before continuing on with full momentum. He hit something.

Then, the screech, ear splitting and ethereal. Not a meter from him, a chiral crystal grows, fingers clawing at the space where the BT had been.

Sam releases the breath he was holding and opens his eyes. Then he looks at the sword. Not a scratch on it.

Okay, it works then, and no mark on the blade either. Better get to it.

It's slow going, moving about the crater. He goes around a few and is almost caught by one, grabbing the bola gun hastily to restrain it before cutting it loose as well. The length of the sword blade gets in the way a little when doing the cutting in a crouched position, it's a little unwieldy and he keeps almost banging it into the rocks and structures jutting out of the ruins. Something smaller would be easier maybe, but that's probably how it goes with prototypes. You start out something cool – and then work your way down to something actually pragmatic.

And it does work, so there's that.

It takes him about half an hour to make his way through the shelter, which the Craftsman has unlocked remotely. No BT's inside, thankfully – just a mess. The shelter is half collapsed inside, kitchen and pantry and who knows how many other rooms gone, but the living room is still there. The furniture is upturned and dusty, and there's water sitting in stale puddles here and there, but there's the bookshelf.

Sam looks through the many books there, quickly gives up trying to read the backs in the meagre light of his odradek, and instead finds a box to put everything in to just carry back. With the books backed away, he pokes around a bit more, for anything the family might want back – there's some photos, which he grabs, some sort of precision tool in a workroom which he also packs away. Then he finds a room that probably belonged to Mark, in no better shape than the rest of the place, but there are some toys there, which look like something the kid might like back.

It's not much to save from a destroyed home, but… better than nothing. Sam uses whatever he can find to try and wrap the stuff up to keep the rain off it before shouldering the whole lot and stepping out again, sword in hand. Above him hangs the inverted rainbow, like a sign in the rain.

Sam glances at it and then turns his eyes resolutely to the ruins.

He has a baby to get back to.


 

Lou is wailing like an alarm when Sam gets back in the Craftsman's shelter. Poor Mark looks terrified as Sam steps past him, and Artificer looks a little worried too – she's holding Lou and trying to rock her, but it's doing nothing. Lou's crying like she's in pain.

"Sam, thank god – when she woke up and started wailing like that, we were worried something might've happened," the Craftsman says. "Are you alright – did the sword work?"

"Yeah," Sam says, dropping his backpack hurriedly and then stripping out of the rain-soaked jumpsuit, kicking his shoes to the entrance before hurrying to the Artificer, and to Lou. "What happened, why's she crying?"

"She just woke up like this – I checked her diaper, it was clean, and she didn't want to take formula –" the Artificer says, quickly transferring Lou over. Sam accepts her eagerly, one hand behind her back and neck, the other under her. "I think it's just separation anxiety, but –"

Sam ignores her completely. "Hey, hey, Lou, sh, I'm here, I'm here, it's okay," he murmurs to Lou, bringing her close and rocking her. She's never cried like this before, this loud, this painful. "It's okay, it's okay, I'm here, it's okay – see the sunset, the day is ending…"

Lou wails on, and Sam is so focused on her that he completely misses the Craftsman checking the packages – when Mark exclaims something over them, loud enough to make Lou jerk with surprise in his arms, Sam turns to step out of the room with Lou. "See the sunset, the day is ending," he sings, pressing his lips to her temple and rubbing her neck and shoulders. "Let that yawn out, there's no pretending…"

It's almost like when she got autotoxemia in pod, a stress reaction – but a lot worse. Sam can almost feel the red warning flashing around her as he rocks her and sings – but he can also feel her calming down, her cries losing some of their force, the pinched, agonised quality of them calming down.

"Shh, it's okay, it's okay," he murmurs to her, keeping her close and pressing a kiss to her head. "That's right, it's okay…"

So, is it a separation anxiety, or do they have a connection between them, a tether he can't see? He can't tell – aside from your usual fear and anxiety, he didn't feel anything particularly strand-related when he left the shelter. Might be just that she woke up and he wasn't there and she could tell. Either way...

"Okay," Sam murmurs, as she hiccups tiredly against his neck, feeling exhausted and far too small and fragile to go through this kind of stress. "Not leaving you behind again. Gotcha. Sorry, Lou."

She whines in distress, kicking at his belly and bumping her forehead against his neck – against bare skin. Sam looks at her as she makes another discontent noise and – right. He's been keeping her under his clothes, mostly. Often up against his skin.

"Okay, okay," he murmurs again and tugs his vest open down to the scar, laying her on his chest and tugging the lapels around her. "Is that better?"

The noise she makes in answer isn't exactly happy yet, but she settles, still sniffling miserably, but no longer wailing or squirming.

"Is BB alright?" Mark asks, peering around the corner at them while Sam slides down a wall, to sit on the floor with Lou.

"A bit stressed, but she'll be fine," Sam promises quietly. "What'cha got there, Mark?"

"Um. You brought one of my toys back, but it's – it’s a baby toy, I'm too old for it now," the boy says, holding up a stuffed dinosaur. "I thought – maybe she would like it. Maybe it would make her happy again?"

Sam looks at the slightly lopsided, water-stained stuffed dinosaur. "It's cool looking," he offers. "But maybe wash it first."

"Oh. Right," Mark says, and squeezes the dinosaur in his hands. "I was looking at her when she started to cry – did I make her cry?" the boy asks.

"Doubt it. It was me – wasn't here," Sam says, and rubs Lou's back as she sucks on her thumb, still looking miserable and tired. "But she'll be fine, don't worry about it."

The Craftsman comes around the corner too, watching for a moment and then putting a hand on his son's head, ruffling his hair. "Well, Sam, you got the books alright," he says quietly. "And then some. Don't do anything by halves, do you?"

"Thought I might as well," Sam says, looping one arm carefully around Lou. "Poked around for what seemed important. Hope you don't mind."

"I don't mind," the Craftsman says and sighs, sending his son back to the living room with a slight push. "There were some photos we thought we lost – pictures of Mark's grandparents, stuff like that. Stuff you can't easily print, stuff we thought we lost. Thank you for bringing the back, Sam" he says and trails away, folding his arms. "You know, I was a little worried," he admits then. "About you and Lou."

Sam lifts his chin, frowning. "What?" he asks.

"It seemed a bit sudden, is all," the Craftsman says. "Used to happen back in the old days – things are different now, no one has kids by accident anymore, it takes so much more effort now, but before the Death Stranding, it was… different. Folks got pregnant with kids they weren't ready for and then made a mess of things, being unprepared, having no resources to deal with the situation, no plan. Been a while since I've seen it happen, or even heard of it. So I was worried that maybe you…"

"That I'd leave Lou behind, with you?" Sam demands.

"Well, no," the Craftsman amends. "But maybe you bit off more than you could chew. Being a porter doesn't… lend to a stable lifestyle, I thought, the kind you need for a kid. And you seem like a born deliverer. Wasn't sure if this thing was going to stick, you know."

Sam scoffs and stands up, holding Lou secure to his chest. "Fuck you, man."

The Craftsman smiles a little at that. "Hey, there's nothing wrong with admitting you're not ready for something," he says and then holds up a soothing hand. "Not that I believe you aren't. Family is a big leap, more so these days than ever… but you're really all in, aren't you?"

Giving the guy a wary look, Sam glances down at Lou. She's got tears on her face, so he wipes them gently away with his thumb.

"Looks like you two share a bond," the Craftsman comments. "That's good. Come on, son. Let's have a look at those baby books, shall we? See which ones were actually useful."

Sam hesitates and then nods. "It worked, your sword," he offers then. "Cut the cords just like Mama's cuffs."

"Oh?" the Craftsman asks, arching his brows. "What's the verdict then, how did field testing go? Any criticisms?"

"Too damn unwieldy," Sam says gruffly and heads back to his backpack. There, he takes out the sword – all three pieces of it, and holds them out to the Craftsman. "Swung at a BT," he says. "Got the thing, and then the blade hit some rocks and shattered." He still managed to get a couple of BT's with what remained of the blade nearest to the hilt, but he definitely didn't stick around for further testing.

"Aww," the Craftsman says, accepting the shards. "Well. Some structural weakness there obviously, I did figure that with this much chiralium the blade was going to be weak. Maybe a metal core…?"

Sam hums, noncommittal, and looks down at Lou. She's easing off to sleep now, thankfully. "Or you could just make it a knife," he says and presses an apologetic kiss on Lou's head. "Sorry, baby. Won't happen again."

Chapter Text

Sam spends a full week at the Craftsman's, learning what he can from him and the Artificer, playing with Mark, and planning his claim in the hills. It wasn't so long ago that the Craftsman's family had been forced to make their newer shelter, so they got some new tips and tricks as to how to set it up.

"You should get solar panels anyway, and definitely a set of batteries. I know the chiral network helps with energy costs, those generators of theirs are a godsend, but the chiral network isn't as reliable as people thought – chiral spikes tend to cut it off," the Craftsman says. "So, batteries for power outs and solar panels, just in case. Granted, chiral spikes come with chiral clouds, so they won't be that useful, but better than nothing."

"How about wind turbines?" Sam asks. "Can I print those? The East region is almost entirely powered by the Windwarm, and it is windy up in those hills, so…"

"Hm. Not a bad idea, let's see," the Craftsman says, and together they look into it. There is a design for wind turbines, though they're obviously not as big as the ones at the Windfarm. Two or three could probably power a shelter in a pinch. "These and solar panels should set you right."

"Great, thanks," Sam says.

"You'll want a water tower too," the Artificer says from where she's showing Mark how to knit. "Even a small one will save you a lot of headaches, if the power goes out."

"Well, a small one comes with the basic shelter design, but we can add a bigger one, if you're going to have big water consumption," the Craftsman agrees. "Though obviously that will up the shelter building cost."

"Mmh," Sam answers, leaning back. "I did add a hot tub, so… maybe."

The Craftsman arches his brows at him. "A hot tub," he repeats.

"Don't at me," Sam says, shaking his head. "I'm a porter, and hot springs are a way of life."

The man snorts. "Water tower it is," he says and considers the designs of Sam's shelter printer. "Damn, this is gonna be expensive as hell, on materials. There's, what… sixteen rooms and ten structures? You sure you want it this big?"

Sam scratches his cheek and shrugs. "How much is the material cost by now?"

A lot, is the answer, up to fifteen tons of special alloys, never mind three tons of other metals, five tons of ceramics and a bucket load of chiral crystals and various chemicals.

"I got a ton and a half of materials from the Engineer, thought that would get me started," Sam muses. But it wouldn't get him the shelter printed out anytime soon, hell… it might take him months to gather the materials. Shit.

The Craftsman hums thoughtfully. "Well, it's set up in a sequence – each room will print out separately, and you can choose which room to print first. You can print the initial couple of rooms with one point five tons, maybe. Entrance and garage. We can give you materials for a little bit more,  make the place more liveable. But yeah, looks like you have a lot of material runs in your future."

"I'm not sure I can fit anything more on the truck," Sam admits. "The suspension is almost shot already."

That brings a thoughtful look to the Craftsman's face. "Hmm. I have been toying with an idea for chiral-powered trailer for the the basic Bridges truck – something like those hovering carriages of yours. Of course using them would be hell of a expense on chiral crystals… but I doubt you have any issues with running out, seeing as you can kill BTs and collect the crystals after."

"A… hovering trailer?" Sam asks. "Hm."

"We have trailers, we have hovering cargo carriages, marrying them together shouldn't be that hard, right?" the Craftsman hums and strokes a hand over his chin. "I'll give the Engineer and the Junk Dealer a call, see what they think. We might be able to up your cargo capacity by a bunch, if we put our heads together. Would help a lot of other porters too, I bet – people are sending more and more stuff out, these days, and ordering more things, at greater volumes."

Sam nods agreeing. "There's that, yeah," he muses. "They're going to be such MULE baits, though."

"Probably, but nothing's perfect," the Craftsman says. "I'll give the other guys a call, see what we can come up with."

In the meanwhile, Sam learns from the Artificer to anticipate things to come with BB. "Looks like it's a long way until then, she's still so small," she says while peering into Lou's mouth. "But teething, eventually. It usually starts around 6 months, but I don't know how it will work with Lou, since her growth was artificially stalled. It might be sooner, or later – you should watch out for it anyway."

In the books they'd selected for Sam to take away, there were lists for these baby milestones, some of which Lou had already passed. She's got communication down, can hear better than babies much older, probably understands at least some of the words spoken to her, and she's got more strength and coordination too. The Artificer suspects she also has already fully developed vision – and honestly, Sam thinks Lou's vision is probably better than his.

"As strong as she is, I bet she will be crawling around in a couple of months," the Artificer says, shaking her head in amazement. "Granted that she'll get the core strength before then. You gotta play with her, help her build those muscles."

"Will do," Sam says and looks up at Lou, who is blowing raspberries at them. "Hear that, Lou. You'll be the buffest baby ever."

She squeals, like she understands. Maybe does, too.

The Artificer grins at that. "You can probably try her on more solid food sooner than most people, too," she says. "I guess there's nothing to it but test these things out, see what she's ready for and what she isn't." She trails away for a moment and then sighs. "She's so small, it's incredible how developed she already is. BBs are something else, huh?"

"Yeah," Sam murmurs and strokes Lou's head.

"Oh, one more thing," the Artificer says, reaching for the books. "I can't be sure, of course, but newborns still have soft spots in their heads, where the bones aren't fused – helps them get through the birth canal, I think – ah, here," she says, pointing it out on the book. "They're called Fontanelles. I don't know how it works with Lou, but – something to keep in mind when handling her, and as she grows."

Sam takes the book and reads through the section, explaining the various soft spots on baby's heads, and why they're way they are, and what to expect with them. He thinks he'd felt them, on Lou, but he'd not thought about it much. Lou was so soft and small all over, so he'd just figured it was more of that. "Right, okay. Good to know."

The Artificer regales him with some stories – horror and otherwise – about Mark's younger years, painting a picture of what to expect. The boy himself is horrified to find out about all the messes he'd made as a kid and tends to escape the room rather than stick around listening, but Sam tries to memorise all of it. He has so little to go on, every nugget of information is precious.

"You might also want to get in touch with the Doctor, up in the Rockies," the Artificer finishes. "He can't exactly do house calls, but you can call him if something happens, or if Lou gets sick."

Sam hums. He's dealt with the guy, he's full on for UCA, and calling him about a former Bridge Baby… Honestly, he'd rather risk calling Deadman. "I'll keep that in mind," he says. "Anything else?"

"I think that about covers it. Honestly, Sam, it looks like you're doing alright. She's growing, she's gaining weight and she looks happy – extreme separation anxiety aside, maybe," the Artificer says, smiling wryly. "But living in a shelter, you rarely have to worry about things like that, anyway."

"Yeah, I guess," Sam says. "Thanks, for all of this. Hope you don't mind if I give you a call, if something goes wrong."

She smiles, and looks down at Lou a little wistfully. "Not at all. I'll be happy to help."


 

The Craftsman, the Engineer and the Junk Dealer hash out the chiral-powered trailer in a couple of days, but it takes another day to actually get it. The Craftsman doesn't have a printer big enough to work it out, so they have to send an order to the distro center further out to have it made – something which Bridges is happy to do for them for the benefit of then getting the rights to use the trailer design themselves, of course. A familiar porter hauls the finished trailer prototype to the Craftsman's place at the back of her own truck, and Sam accepts the delivery. It's the woman who wished him the Deliverer's luck.

"This for you? It's a beauty," the porter, Riley, says, eyeing the trailer. It's a little flimsy looking for now – like the hovering carriages, it is more of a frame than anything. It had to be light, for the chiral suspension to work. But it's functional – and carries up to three tons of weight, at the cost of a gram of crystals per minute.

"Gonna be collecting materials to make one for myself, definitely," the porter says. "Should make hauling things from the Timefall Farm so much easier. They're sending bigger and bigger shipments out every time, and I can barely fit them in my truck anymore. Comes with getting a full harvest every timefall, I guess."

"Is there a new route to the farm now?" Sam asks, curious. The place was a bitch to drive to, in his experience.

"It's the same as ever, but after you run the route a couple of times, you get a hang of it," Riley shrugs. "A proper road would be a blessing though. Anyway, you gonna sign this up for me?"

"Yeah, sure," Sam agrees, and signs the order under Relief. "You been running the routes for long?"

"Ever since the road to South Knot was completed, and thank the Deliverer for that," Riley says with a smile, checking her odradek and nodding. "Mostly I haul stuff back to South Knot, it's where I live, but I'm on my way to Lake Knot for a shipment, so I figured I might as well take any orders along the way. Thank you kindly," she says, nodding to him. "Does the Craftsman have anything heading northward?"

"Check the terminal," Sam says, stepping aside to let her through and to go check up the trailer. It looks pretty good, and hooks to the back of the truck with a thick tether. It would take some getting used to drive around with the thing, but it would also triple the amount of cargo he could haul, so… definitely worth it.

"Looks good, huh?" Sam asks Lou, who is peeking past his suit collar. "Should make life a lot easier in the coming months."

"Oh?" Riley asks, while coming back with a rack full of cargo containers. "Big delivery contract coming up?"

"No, I'm setting up a shelter," Sam answers. "Settling down."

"Oh? Whereabout – if it's on my delivery route, I'll add you in."

"Probably nowhere close to the road," Sam says apologetically. "Don't know yet, precisely, but somewhere in the hills – near the Weather Station. You know it?"

"Hm. Never carried anything up there myself, sorry. But I know a few guys who do, I'll give them a heads up on a new Prepper in the area," Riley says, carrying her new packages to her truck. "Well, the Deliverer's luck to you, Relief. See ya around."

"You too. Stay safe out there." Sam waves and watches her go, as the porter backs momentarily into a power zone of a generator to refill her truck's batteries, before turning around and heading for the road. In no time at all she's out of sight. Shaking his head, Sam turns to inspect the trailer and then hook it into his still busted up truck. "Really need to find a safehouse to fix this thing up…"

After feeding the trailer some chiral crystals to get it going, Sam heads back inside. The craftsman is waiting for him by his terminals, where he's watching the feed from outside. "Looks good, huh?" the guy says. "I mean it's basically just an old fashioned trailer, with four chiral suspenders, but should do the trick for a start."

"It looks great, thanks," Sam says.

"Well, the Junk Dealer did most of the designing there," the Craftsman says. "But I came up with the idea, so, yay me. I guess we gotta load it up now."

"Mm," Sam says. "You good for the materials? I wouldn't want to deprive your family if you need them more."

"Kid, you're building a home – you need them more," the Craftsman snorts. "I can spare it. I make weapons, and porters pay me in materials, it's all good – and since most of those weapons are based on your blood… I feel like I owe ya a bit. Especially now that I'm making the knives."

Sam glances down on his own, now hanging permanently from his hip. The chiral cutter is shaped like a foldable utility knife now, with a backing of metal to give it some strength. The chiral blade itself is brittle still, so he wouldn't be using the knife for anything other than its intended use, but… it's damn good to have it.

"Well, I benefit from it too," Sam points out.

"And that's how we beat this thing, by working together," the Craftsman says, smiling, and turns to his terminal. "I can give you enough materials to get you up to six rooms on your shelter. I figure the entrance, the garage, living room, kitchen, one bedroom and a bathroom. Sound good to you?"

"Perfect," Sam says and nods. "Thanks. I really do appreciate it."

The Craftsman nods. "Also printed you a couple of PCC 3, adding in the wind turbine schematic, along with a solar farm plot – get you started on that. Or you could make a water tower instead – it's really up to you."

Sam hums and nods. "Thanks," he says again. "For everything, it's… more than I hoped."

"Hey, you've helped me, it's only right I return the favour," the Craftsman says and shrugs, folding his arms. "People gotta look out for each other – and I'd hate to lose one of the good ones just because he didn't get the help he needed. So. Let's get those materials to your trailer, shall we?"

"You're going to help me load them up?" Sam asks with surprise.

"Forecast shows no timefall for another four hours at least, and it's been dry for the past day or so. Should be good," the Craftsman says. "Also I think my wife got something for you – so, I'll get started loading up while you talk with her."

"Oh. Okay. Thanks."

Sam goes to the Artificer, who is back in her own crafts room, with Mark helping here. "All set to get going then?" she asks.

"Just about to load up, yeah. Craftsman says you got something for me?" Sam asks, wary.

"You and Lou both," she says while Mark quickly hops up.

"I got something too! I washed it and fixed it," the boy says and holds up the dinosaur toy. "And Mom helped me put in a new eye, since the other one was missing. Can I give it to Lou now?"

"Sure thing, bud," Sam says with a smile and crouches down, opening his suit a little so that Lou can see. "Lou, Mark's got something for you."

The boy bounces excitedly and then holds out the dinosaur toy to her. "It's for you. It was mine, once, when I was little, it helped me sleep at night," he says. "I called him Raptor, but you can name him whatever you want. Do you like him?"

Lou babbles and squeals, reaching for the thing. Sam smiles, helping her hold it – it's a little big and heavy for her little hands, but she'd grow into it. "Looks like she does," he says and reaches out to ruffle Mark's hair, standing up again. "Thanks, kid."

Mark grins, delighted, and the Artificer chuckles – before showing Sam a large cargo container. "Here," she says. "Since you're soon not going to be a porter anymore… I'd figure you'd like something more comfortable to wear, once you settle into the life indoors. Take a look."

It's clothing. Shirts, sweaters, pants, underwear, the whole lot – and right on top there's a pair of hand knitted woolen socks. "Oh," he says, reaching out to touch them. They're all – soft.

"Some of it's hun's old clothes, which I repaired – some I printed for you, with some modifications made to make them a bit more unique," the Artificer says and winks. "Everything's better with a little bit of unique touch, right? Added in a bunch of clothes for Lou, too," she adds. "Sadly we don't have any of Mark's old clothes left, but I printed you a whole lot, modifying them a bit too. Should weather you over for a few months, as she grows."

That said, she takes out a little soft hat, baby-sized and also handmade, and while Lou babbles at her, she eases it over her little head. "There," she says and smiles at Lou's astonished expression. "To keep her warm as you get higher up."

Sam looks down at Lou. The hat is the same colour as his porter suit – it's almost like extra camouflage. "Thanks," he says, his voice coming a little rough. "I – thank you."

The Artificer smiles. "Anything you need, Sam. Help, advice, ear to bitch at about early mornings – you just call me," she says. "I'll be right here."

Sam nods, swallowing. "Thanks," he says, feeling it's a bit inadequate, but not able to think anything better. "Thanks."

Mark and the Artificer grin in unison, and high five each other.

Sam gets moving about an hour later, bidding his goodbyes to the crafter family, giving their shelter all the likes he can in thanks for what they'd given him. Lou gives them a baby thumbs up too, which is received with much delighted laughter. With that done and with many promises exchanged about sending messages, Sam gets back in the busted up truck, with some mixed feelings.

It's been a while since he'd been stationary for so long without being also injured – a whole week spent in the Craftsman's shelter had been… different. A nice sort of different, but different anyway. It's almost a relief to get moving again.

Hah. Relief.

"Just a bit more," Sam says, looking down to Lou's now hat-covered head. "And then we have to get the truck through that mess around the hills and through BT territory to boot. Should be fun, huh?"

Lou coos at him, patting idly at Raptor's head as it sits in Sam's lap, just within her reach. She perks up the moment he puts the truck into gear, though, kicking her feet excitedly and gripping at the lapels of his suit, expectant.

"Alright," Sam says with a snort. "Let's get going." He boosts the truck forward, and Lou squeals with delight, the little speed maniac.

It looks like it's going to be a good day.


 

The road past the Distribution Center South of Lake Knot is already deteriorating. It's not so bad yet, but the near constant timefall in the area is eroding the edges of it already, and pieces have started coming off. People have built timefall shelters just at the edges of the road construction area to try and stall the deterioration, but… it's obvious these things, as much effort as it had taken to make them, wouldn't last. Not without some maintenance, anyway.

Sam dumps some chiral crystals into the autopaver on his way, and then, once he gets to the rocky area just at the foot of the hills, starts plotting his route. North of the Weather Station is his plan, there's plenty of open area there, and a river that comes down from the mountains would work for a water source for the filtration systems, it's the getting there that's the tricky part.

There used to be cities here, long lost in the voidouts and other disasters – and so, there's several dozens kilometres worth of BTs between them and their destination.

Sam hesitates as he feels that skin crawling soreness set upon him, as he inches the truck closer. "Right," he says, while Lou makes uncertain, unhappy noises. "Nothing to it but clear a path. Can you be quiet for me, Lou? This is going to be tricky."

She whimpers and then, understanding apparently perfectly, puts a hand over her mouth.

"Don't hold your breath," Sam murmurs with a smile. "You're too small for that. Don't worry. I'll take care of this."

And he does. It's slow going, relying only on DOOMS, but he really is getting more perceptive – or maybe he can just make better use of his own extra sense. He can figure out the direction, now, and if everything else fails, triggering a BT to hunt him down definitely lets him know where they are.

The knife does its job well too, folding out with a snap and cutting through the cord without any issue. And whenever Sam is uncertain of where to aim, the bola gun helps, having longer and wider reach and then giving him the benefit of showing with clear proof of the damn BT's location.

He's not going to run out of chiral crystals any time soon – there's even a golden BT there, which gives him a whole bunch of the stuff. But fuck, it takes all day, and by the time the night comes and the timefall starts coming down even harder, he's not even half way through the BT area.

They'd have a damn good security up those hills, if nothing else. With this many BTs, no MULE with any brains would even think of getting anywhere near, huh.

"Can't sleep here," Sam murmurs to Lou, who is sniffling and whining quietly as he feeds her, after clearing the immediate vicinity of BTs. "Gotta keep on moving. Can you hold out a little longer, baby? I know it sucks, but it cuts days off the trip. We just gotta push through."

Lou makes an unhappy face, but she stays quiet.

They're both exhausted by the time the timefall starts letting up, as they make their way out of the fucking death zone. Sam eases the truck over a river, checks the trailer and the containers there for damage, before dousing everything in a couple cans of repair spray. It's not enough to fix them all, there's literal tons of the stuff, but it should get the actual materials through to their destination alright.

With that done, he crawls back into the truck, hugs Lou close and lays down with her. "Tomorrow," he whispers to her. "Tomorrow, we'll make it, and start building. Just one more day, and we'll get there. Our own home, baby. Doesn't that sound nice?"

Lou looks at him and then tucks her face into his chest, settling down with a heavy, tired sigh. Sam kisses her little cap-adorned head and follows her soon after, passing out like a light in no time flat.


 

The rest of the way up the hills isn't easy by any means, it takes effort navigating the rocks and cliffs jutting out from the hillside. But the sun is coming through now, and since the BT area down below just eats up the timefall, it's a lot dryer up on the hills. There's grass and even some bushes growing up there and everything. The truck is on its last leg and the battery is almost dead by the time they make it to the top of a promising looking hill, but… they make it.

Once there, Sam hops out eagerly to inspect the area, see what he could make of it. The place is pretty untouched – being so far from everything, no one's been there in a long, long time. The most signs of civilisation he finds are the remains of a watchtower that had succumbed to timefall probably months ago, but that's about it. Aside from that and the obvious post-Death Stranding destruction underneath… it's almost pristine.

"How about it, Lou?" Sam asks. It's an open, flat space, easily big enough for the shelter printer. The hill is pretty sturdy too – it's capped with soil, sure, but underneath it's solid rock. No sand, no peat, nothing that might risk the thing listing. Granted, there is also no cave or cliff to imbed the shelter into for additional weather protection… but he could learn to do what the Engineer does, replacing panels and all that.

Lou looks around, wide-eyed as she sucks her thumb. Then she looks up at Sam and makes a sort of mhm noise around her thumb. It sounds satisfied.

"Good enough for you? Then it's good enough for me," Sam says and peers at the surrounding area. The view from there is great too. The mountains at their back, and the hills and rocky plains before them… they'd see timefall coming, if the weather report didn't warn about it first. "Yeah. This is it."

With that said, he goes to get the shelter printer. It's a bit difficult lifting it on his own, with Lou strapped to his chest too, but he manages, dragging the thing onto his back to carry to a good place. There's a rock formation that protrudes off the ground a little ways away, high enough to cover the shelter, and that's where Sam sets the printer, just behind the thing. That way the shelter wouldn't be so obvious at a distance.

"Now," he murmurs, kneeling down. "Let's see…"

The printer gives him a chiralgram of the projected shelter location, thankfully. Sam adjusts it a bit, aiming it just right, and once he's satisfied with the placement, and the printer has calculated that it has the necessary space to print the whole shelter in, he goes back for the truck, driving it closer to make shifting the material back and forth easier. Then, once everything is ready… Sam hits print.

Lou lets out a string excited of babble, and together they sit back to watch their home being built.  

Chapter Text

It doesn't feel real.

Sam and Lou walk from room to room, Lou making quiet, curious noises while Sam just tries to get used to thinking of the place as his. Theirs. It's all empty now, nothing but blank rooms with grey floors and walls, no paint job or furniture yet, but… it's a real place. It's physical and real and right there, and unlike PCC constructions, only time and timefall could dismantle it.

Six rooms. Entrance counts as one, technically – from there, a sloping set of stairs with tracks for truck wheels leads down into the garage, the second room. From the garage two doors lead away – one to the store room that would hold the printer materials, which makes the third room, and the other to the living room, which is the fourth room. Sam had opted for no bedroom just yet, he can live in the living room at the start and save on materials, so all there's left is the kitchen, and the bathroom, which is also equipped with a toilet.

Eventually, there'd be more rooms. Bedrooms, maybe a baby room, though Sam isn't sure it's needed, a separate toilet, the second bathroom for the hot tub, which, honestly, is still a priority for Sam. Pantry for food stuff, the greenhouse too, though Sam has no idea if he could even do anything with it…

Already the place feels so big – easily three times the size of the Bridges private rooms he'd gotten used to. Trying to imagine more, with the knowledge that the place would be theirs, that they'd be staying?

"Weird," Sam murmurs to Lou, who is chewing on D-Dog's ear absentmindedly. "Don't like the echo."

"Eho," Lou agrees.

"Yeah," Sam nods. "Well, let's see if we can get the truck into the garage."

The truck fits alright, the Engineer and the Craftsman had designed the entrance perfectly. The trailer fits too, Sam is relieved to find – the garage is in no way small, after all. Sam would like to one day get a trike here too, and who knows, if porters came through and proved trustworthy, he could maybe give them a leg up on vehicle maintenance. The garage does come with a repair system, after all.

Finally gets the busted up truck sorted out, and not a moment too soon.

With the truck in, Sam shuffles materials around – printer materials go to their set storage, and everything else is carried inside, the baby packages, the clothes, the books… it's not much, but they have some stuff already. As for the rest…

"Guess there's nothing to it," Sam says, while shrugging out of his jumpsuit, Lou snug against his chest in her harness. "Let's see if we can print some furniture, yeah?"

Lou mumbles interestedly and then watches as Sam walks over to the shelter systems terminal, an automatic addition to the living room, and starts shuffling through the available prints. They are already on the Chiral network, as Anonymous Shelter Number 4356. Wondering if that means there's 4355 shelters out there that were on the fringes of the network, but hadn't been connected to the network with the Q-pid, Sam sits down to select the interior decorating. He can use the terminal to paint the walls too, which is nice.

He goes with a warm white, for now, for everything – floors, walls, ceiling. He could change it later, if and when he got sick of it, but for now it would do.

For furniture Sam settles on the basics. Table and chairs for the kitchen, couch for the living room along with a bed for him with all the necessary bedding. He also adds a crib, though he doubts Lou would be using it much, as she doesn't particularly enjoy sleeping anywhere but on him. After a moment he adds in a small bookcase, and a drawer for clothes, since he has some now – and then, after another thought, looks through for baby-related furniture.

"Baby changing station," Sam murmurs with a snort and looks at Lou. She's staring at the screen, fascinated. According to the Artificer, Lou is a very easy baby to change diaper of, never gave any fuss. So he probably doesn't need a dedicated table to take care of her. But… the shelter is a bit on the empty side so far. And he can always just recycle the materials, later. "Yeah, sure. Why not."

The place still looks a bit empty, after he's done printing. The bed looks utilitarian – he selected the basic thing, which looked like a Bridges bed – and the table and chairs are all gunmetal grey and black. Sam considers them with a hum and then shrugs. He could change them too, once he has any idea what he actually likes.

Sam opens up a music player on the terminal, finds a playlist he can stand and sets it to play, before going about trying to get used to having a house. First things first… a shower.


 

It's weird. Even with music playing and Lou making happy noises, the place feels too quiet, too empty, too… everything. Sam can't seem to settle at all, wandering from one room to another in search of something to do, and there just isn't that much there. He has materials for the food printer to last him about a month thanks to the Craftsman, he has everything he needs for Lou, they got printer materials to start with – they're good, really.

And yet it feels like he's idling, that he needs to get going, get moving, get on with doing stuff. Like he's not done yet.

That's what makes him look into the PCC 3s, though he doesn't really need them yet. They've got just enough network signal, even without the full network connection to boost their systems, that their shelter can piggyback on the power of other network hubs like your usual PCC structures do. It takes your own power source to turn a structure into a bandwidth hub, though – to supply it, instead of being just a leech for it.

So, Sam puts on his suit, straps Lou on, and steps out of the shelter less than  a day after getting in, to see if he could add a small solar array or maybe a wind turbine to the system, whichever got the most power. He's got two PCC 3's, so he has to be selective. They had water connection – there was a small stream not that far from the shelter which the systems had picked up and hooked into – so the water tower might not be necessary, but maybe a battery bank?`

"Hmm," Sam hums, considering the available structures the Craftsman had downloaded into the things. "Solar or wind. What do you think, Lou, which will work better here?"

It was windy up on the hill – but it was also sunny enough to make him seriously consider it. Wind would give him power all around the clock – but only if it was windy – while solar would give him a much bigger boost… but only if it was sunny. Both had disadvantages, and honestly he'd rather have both… but he also wanted a battery so that they'd be any use at all. "Shit," Sam mutters and takes out his phone.

He sends a quick message to the Craftsman. "Solar + battery, or wind + battery?"

It's a couple of minutes before he gets an answer, and it's in the form of a call. "Hey, kid," the Craftsman says. "How's it looking?"

"Sunny," Sam says, looking around. "And windy."

"Ah. And you can't tell which one is better?"

"Yeah."

"I can check the local weather statistics from the last couple of months, if you give me your shelter ID. You've set it down, I assume?" The Craftsman asks. "That being the only reason why you'd be putting down generators."

"Mmhm. It's shelter number 4356," Sam says to the phone, looking around. "Anonymous, didn't fully connect it into the chiral network." And he's not sure he will, either, just yet. It would put an instant glaring target on the shelter, after all – as far as he knows, he's the only one with a Q-pid out there, and if he uses it… Bridges would know.

"Right, right, let's see," the Craftsman answers, and there's a moment of quiet clicking of a keyboard before he says. "Oh, nice. The average amount of sunlight is 6.5 hours a day, which is not bad at all, but the average wind speed up there is 7.7 meters per second. I'd say go with that – it'll get you more even yield. Definitely get a solar array once you can, though, you've got too good a deal up there not to."

"Alright, wind it is," Sam says. "Thanks, Craftsman."

"No problem, son," the man answers. "How the little one doing?"

Sam looks down at Lou and then holds the phone to her. "Wanna say hi to Craftsman, Lou?"

"Afma!" she says and babbles nonsense cheerfully into the phone. Sam can hear the man chuckling, and holds the phone for Lou for a bit longer, until she's said her bit, apparently. Lou looks up at him, giving him a cheerful little baby grin, and Sam grins back. Adorable.

Then he lifts it to his ear. "There you have it, Afma," he says. "She's doing great."

"So I hear," the Craftsman says, amused. "Need anything else, son?"

"Think I got it now, thanks."

"Alright, give me a call if there's anything else you need," the man says. "And oh, my wife asked me to tell you to take pictures, lots and lots of pictures, of Lou and the place."

"To send?" Sam asks and hesitates. "I don't know…"

"Not that we wouldn't mind seeing the place you set up in, but for yourself," the Craftsman says. "Trust me – you'll want to look back one day. The start is always something special – don't want to forget it, right?"

Sam swallows, his hand automatically going to the pocket where he has the picture. "Right…right. I'll take pictures."

"Good man. Gotta go now, a porter just came in – keep it up, son," the Craftsman says.

"You too, man, say hi to the family for me," Sam agrees and the call disconnects. Sam eyes the phone warily for a moment and then looks at Lou, in her harness, looking up at him. "Well… yeah," he says, and then holds the phone at arm's length, aimed at her, and takes a picture. Lou makes an uncertain noise before spotting herself on the screen and making even more uncertain noise. "That's you, Lou," Sam says, holding the phone close. "That's your picture."

She obviously doesn't get it, so he gently untangles her from the harness and lifts her higher up, so that her face is next to his, their cheeks squished together. While she makes faces at the feel of his facial hair, Sam takes another selfie, this time of them both, and shows it to her. "See? That's us."

Lou looks between the picture and him and then the picture again. Then she makes a quizzical noise, reaching to poke at the camera uncertainty, accidentally swiping to the previous photo. Sam chuckles at her surprise and swipes back, zooming in on their faces. "That's us," he says, and presses a kiss to her cheek. "It's a photo. That's us, baby. You and me."

"Tam," Lou says and then, making a face, tries again. "Tam – ammam – "

"Are you trying to say Sam?" he asks, amazed. "Kid, you're way too young to be talking already. Give it a month or two at least."

Lou sticks a finger to her mouth, looking very serious. "Tam," she says thoughtfully, pointing to the picture. "Ou."

"Geez. Yeah, that's you. Sam and Lou, that's us," Sam agrees and takes another picture. "Let's take another photo, alright? Smile for the camera, Lou. Come on, I know you can," he says and then smiles a bit exaggeratedly. "Like this, come on."

She doesn't, putting her hands on his face instead, feeling at the creases of his cheek and tugging at his whiskers. Sam winces, and his thumb swipes over the capture button – catching the moment she's pulling at his beard. "Okay, fine, I guess we're neither of us photogenic here," Sam mutters and puts the phone away. "Ow, Lou, stop it."

"Ou ou," she says and pats his cheeks, a sort of all better gesture. "Tam mam."

"Right. Sure," Sam snorts and presses a kiss to her little hand before easing her back down into the harness. "Let's set up a wind turbine, then."

He puts it a bit off to the side from the shelter, anticipating having the need to drive around the place. The battery he puts right against the shelter entrance, though, where it might protect the thing from some of the wind and potential rainfall. The battery comes in a case that should protect it somewhat, but he should probably get better cover for it, a tent or something.

But they have their own power generator and aren't at the mercy of their feeble chiral network connection. So that's good.

Sam steps back to take a picture of the whole set up, the fresh shelter with the wind generator just to the back of it, and the mountains making a majestic backdrop. Not bad, he thinks, if he so says himself. Not bad at all.

Except that with the wind generator and the battery made, he's out of things to do. Again.

"Well," Sam murmurs. "Damn. Now what do I do…"

"Oto," Lou babbles, reaching for the camera. "Oto!"

"Photo?" Sam asks.

"Poto!"

Sam blinks, and then holds the phone closer to her, the photography function engaged. She peers at what she on the screen and then, very carefully, presses a single finger on the capture button. Together they capture a picture of the wind turbine, with the mountains behind it. As the still appears on the screen, Lou kicks her feet excitedly and looks up at him for approval.

"Well done, Lou," Sam says, grinning. "It's a great one."

Of course it means that they now have to take a photo of literally everything they have and they've made – the truck, the trailer, the furniture, everything – but hell. It keeps them busy for the rest of the day.


 

Lying back on the couch with Lou half dozing on his chest, Sam looks through his mails, reads the ones he hasn't replied to yet, and answers them.

One from the Ludens Fan, asking about whether he knows about anyone who is into the same sort of stuff he is. Sam considers giving him the call sign for the Cosplayer, figuring those two might get along like a house on fire, but… should probably ask her first. He promises the guy to look into it.

Another from the Musician, telling him about some streamed music show he's planning on putting up – he'd play music in his shelter, have it streamed over the network for people to watch, it'd be like a real show! And Sam could watch too, if he wanted to? Sam promises he would if he could, though with his rather spotty network connection it might not be as crisp on his end. He's still not fully connected, after all.

The Engineer is asking about his shelter, having heard from the Craftsman it had been laid down – telling him that if he needed any maintenance, the Engineer could talk him through it. Sam answers that he appreciates it, and asks him about the panel changing he does – since his shelter is out in the open, it might be prudent eventually.

The Craftsman he sends a picture of the shelter, risking it since there's no people in the picture, and nothing to really identify the location. There's the shelter number on the side of the shelter, of course, but… it could belong to anyone.

And then there's a message from Fragile.

"Heard through the wire that you'd settled down," she writes. "If you give me your shelter ID, I'll send something over for you. I forgot to give it, the last we saw each other. I'll keep the location secret, promise – Fragile Express prioritises dependability and confidentiality." And nothing more.

Sam considers it and then hums. "Yeah, okay," he writes back, and gives her the ID.

And then there's Deadman.

It's been over a week since they last exchanged messages – ten days now, isn't it? Damn, time passes fast. And Lou's now 26 days out the pod… almost 4 weeks.

Sam strokes his fingers through her hair, which is coming in stronger now. Looks like she's going to be blond, at least to start with – though most of the books say that a lot of babies hair grows darker later, as melanin builds up. Lou might have darker eyes too, later on. Who knows. "Let's see how you've grown, baby."

Lou coos and watches the odradek as Sam scans her. And yeah, she's grown – by over two and a half centimetres, and almost a quarter of a kilogram. "Well done, Lou," Sam says. "You're growing like hell."

She coos contently and sticks her thumb in her mouth.

Sam's finger hovers over the screen and then he hesitates. There's more he wants to say, to tell - Deadman should know. What would convey what he wanted to convey…

41.91 cm and 1542 grams 😊🏡.

"Lame," Sam murmurs, running a hand over his face, feeling his own embarrassment radiating from it. But… sends the message all the same. Can't really think of a better way to convey the information, without giving away too much. Hopefully Deadman would get it.

There's no instant reply this time. Sam waits, staring at the phone, and then lays his head down, dropping the phone to his side. He's not sure why he's so disappointed. Deadman probably has things to do, and what does it even matter if he answers or not? What does it matter if he even knows? They're probably never going to see each other again. That's… that's what Sam was planning on, anyway.

Sam stares at the blank white ceiling, and on his chest Lou snuffles a little, her knee digging softly into his midriff. Moment later, there's a hand, patting his chin, tugging at his whiskers. "Hey," he says, looking down. "Ouch."

"Mam," she says, worriedly.

"What, now I'm Mam? What happened to Tam?" Sam asks, taking her hand in his and pressing it to his lips. "Don't call me Mama, I'm pretty sure that call sign is still taken. Wouldn't want to infringe on Mama's turf. You remember Mama, Lou? Though, I guess… you might not." She was… reset after Mama's death, after all.

Lou babbles at him, concerned, and Sam sighs, pulling her close and nuzzling his nose into her baby soft hair.

"We're good, baby," he promises. "We're all good here. Don't need anything else but this. Right?"

Right.


 

God, he's so bored.

Sam wanders from room to room, trying to figure out what to do with the time he has. Lou's asleep on the bed, hugging her toys and looking comfy, and Sam feels like his skin is itching, he's so bored. His whole body is rearing to do something, anything, to go somewhere, and there's just. Nothing.

He'd been planning on taking it easy for a while, kicking back, relaxing, and once he had taken some time just for himself and Lou, then he would start thinking about the materials for the shelter expansion, getting it properly finished. So long he's been just longing for a break, to just set down his shit and sit down and do nothing, but now that he's here…

He ends up doing push ups and squats in the kitchen for a while just to have something to exert energy on, and then he feels a bit ridiculous for doing it. At least here there's no one to see, but, ugh.

Sam guesses this explains why all the preppers get sort of obsessive about something, tinkering, building, collecting, whatever. Cooped up inside a shelter with, you'd go nuts with boredom alone with nothing to do. Problem is, Sam's never been the tinkering type – nor is he interested in collecting, or… or anything. All he ever remembers wanting to do is… walk.

Walk away from Bridges, from anyone who might want to try and touch him, then to walk to Amelie, to just… keep on going, keep on walking.

Groaning softly, annoyed with his own restlessness, Sam runs his hands over his neck and then goes to check on Lou. At least with her awake he has something to do, but, nope, still snoozing and looking comfy. And he doesn't have the heart to wake her up just so that he'd have something to do.

Sam picks the baby books and leaves through them, but he's already read the most pertinent parts, and a lot of the later stuff doesn't even apply to Lou yet. He pokes around the network on his terminal, but with the connection being so spotty there's not much he can get out of it. He searches for articles about stuff like shelter maintenance, what people do to keep their shit in order, but even that gets boring fast.

He just wants to move. And there's only so much space. And with Lou asleep he can't go anywhere, and –

Sam sits down, his knees bouncing restlessly, and then gets up. He walks from room to room for a bit more and then sits down again, tinkering with the food printer for a while, seeing what he could get out of it. He hadn't used it much – still had cryptobiotes stored up, and they gave him all the nutrients he needed really, so… should try out some recipes, see what he could make.

He gets up and walks from room to room. He goes to the garage and checks on the truck – fully restored now, good as new. He does inventory on the building materials, ignoring the terminal that tells him exactly what's there. Then he wanders back to the living room to check up on Lou.

Then he sits down again and gives out a deep and heartfelt, "Fuck."

You'd think after all this time, after all the fucking running around he's been doing, he'd be happy settling down. Apparently not.

Rubbing his hands together, Sam stares at sleeping Lou silently for a while and then picks up his phone again. No new mails since the last he checked, no messages, nothing interesting. And why would there be, since only so many people know where he is and under what name. Fragile knows where and who, Deadman doesn't know even that much, and Heartman, Lockne and Die-Hardman don't know anything at all, unless the others have told them. And considering how loyal they are to the cause of UCA and bettering it, likely at any cost… Sam's not eager to tell them.

He kind of misses Mama's help, though. Heartman's theses on whatever was the curiosity at hand at that particular time. Hell, even Die-Hardman, telling him what's what. How much that was sincere and honest was hard to say, though… how much Amelie had manipulated them all. It would be nice to, just…

Sam squeezes the phone in his hands and then leans his head back, drawing a deep breath. He is not risking his shelter and Lou just because he's fucking bored.

Pushups and squats it is, then.


 

Sam sets out the next day, after meagre four days of stationary life at the shelter. He does it muttering curses at himself, for the most part – can't relax for one moment, you sad asshole – and Lou is giving him some wary looks during it, which he is a bit sad about. But he drives the truck out, locks up the shelter, puts on the automated system in case Fragile's parcel makes it before he gets back, and then sets out.

It'll be just a material run, he'll go around, finding alloys and metals and whatnot for the shelter. Maybe if he got the greenhouse part up and running, that could keep him preoccupied, learning how farming indoors even works, or… how farming works, period. Sam's not sure he's ever grown so much as a houseplant, so it should be interesting, right? Should keep him from getting antsy.

Right.

The way down from the shelter is easier than the way up had been – but then he gets lower and the timefall starts, and, surprise, surprise, the BTs are back. And Sam probably shouldn't be relieved by that – BTs aren't something to play around with, even he's not insane enough to think so, but… he feels more like himself, crouching in front of the truck with the golden cord cutter in hand, waiting for an opportunity to strike. He feels more like… like he knows what he's doing. And that he's doing something. Something that matters.

Shit, did the whole quest to connect the Knots give him some urge to do the right thing after all?

"This is nonsense," Sam mutters to Lou, as they make through the area, and he can ease the truck on the road again. "Isn't this nonsense, Lou? I think it's nonsense."

She smiles, but that might be that she's just happy to get out of the BT area, relaxing against his chest with a sigh. Sam looks down at her and then sighs himself. "I'm sorry, baby. I think it will take me a bit before I figure out this settling down thing. What do you say, wanna go see the Elder? I bet he can tell us a thing or two about indoor gardening. And he owes me materials. Maybe enough for a room or two."

Lou coos and puts her thumb in her mouth. Good enough for him, Sam thinks, and boosts down the road.

Chapter Text

"Sorry to put you off, after you came such a long way up here," the Elder says apologetically, and motions at himself. In his chiralgram, he's sitting down now – in a wheelchair, it looks like. "But my health has taken a turn for the worst, and I can't risk any chirallium spills in my shelter anymore."

"It's fine, I understand," Sam says, while sitting on a pile of freshly printed containers, Lou sitting in his lap. "How are you holding up?"

"It's got its ups and downs. Better now that I am getting a steady supply of everything I need from Lake Knot," the Elder says, waving a hand. "Those roads you built help a lot. But there's just no fighting the march of time, is there? Doesn't help, all the chiral contamination from the early years, just after the Death Stranding begun."

Sam hesitates at that. "How bad is it?" he asks quietly. "I mean – I don't mean to be rude, but…"

"But you're a porter, and your chance of chiral contamination is a whole lot higher than most people's?" the Elder guesses. "Funnily enough, it's not the memory that's the problem. I remember everything as well as I ever have. But cellular damage…" he shakes his head. "I reckon we all age a little faster these days. I'm not even seventy yet, it's not so old in comparison to the way it was in the old world, but I feel like I'm a hundred and more."

Sam hums. "So, just stuff breaking down."

"S'what aging does," the old man answers and smiles at Lou, who is staring up at him in fascination. "Though I am sad that I don't get to meet your daughter in person. It has been… a long time since I've seen children, never mind one so young. But in my state I just can't risk it."

Lou babbles babytalk back at him, obviously aware she's being addressed. Sam tugs at her hat, which is a little crooked, and looks at the Elder. "I understand," he says, a little awkward. Here he has the undisputed proof of the damage of chiralium in the atmosphere, and what timefall does, all that… and he's brought Lou out of the shelter anyway. Shit. "How are you holding up, aside from," Sam motions to the wheelchair. "Everything?"

"I can still manage," the Elder assures him. "I've printed myself no end of special aids and tools, and my shelter is already fit for a wheelchair – I saw all this coming miles away and prepared. I'll do fine, until I don't, anyway."

"And… when it happens…?"

The Elder shows his wrist, where he has a brand new Bridges cuff. "I have a doctor near the Mountain Knot City monitoring my vitals," he says. "The moment I flatline, a signal will go out to the nearest porter to take me to the incinerator. It's been covered, and I've made my preparations, son, don't worry. When the end comes… the clean up should be fairly straightforward."

Sam nods, a little awkward. "Well, I hope it doesn't come anytime soon," he says quietly, shifting Lou in his lap into a more comfortable position.

"That's kind of you," the old man says and sighs, looking around the shelter. "I've spent the better part of forty years cooped up indoors," he muses somewhat regretfully. "Only stepped out every so often, when I had to, but mostly I've not moved much from this very spot. I've been safe here, and I daresay it's been a good long life… but I can't say I don't miss the things I missed out on. Old cities I never visited, foreign countries, things that were still around, way back when. We used to have such great things, and I had opportunities to take advantage of those things… and I never took them, and then the Death Stranding happened…"

Sam listens to the old man lamenting his past, how his suspicion of governments led him to separate from the world, to build his shelter. Though he wasn't exactly the first prepper out there, he is definitely the older one still alive. He has a lot of stories. Few of them are applicable to this day, maybe, but that doesn't mean there's nothing there that's worth something.

"But never mind that," the old man says and sighs. "You didn't come here to listen to an old man yarn away – what was it you wanted, son?"

"Actually, that's exactly why I came," Sam snorts. "And to cash in on those materials you owe me. I built my own shelter, it's still under work, but it's got rooms, keeps out the timefall. I'm adding in a greenhouse, and I was hoping you could give me a tip or two on how to run the thing. I've never grown anything before."

"Oh?" the old man asks, stroking his chin. "Well, that explains the ID then. Relief, hm? I see. Well, I can certainly give you pointers – I can, in fact, do better than that," he turns the wheelchair around. "Be back with you in a moment, son, have to fetch something from the freezer…"

Sam waits, idly bouncing his leg and entertaining Lou by whistling the lullaby, which still makes her wiggle excitedly. "Looks like it'll only be a day trip," Sam murmurs to her. "Can't stay the night here, after all. Ah well. Still nice to get out, hm?"

She babbles high-pitched, cheerful nonsense in answer and then reaches for him, trying to claw her way up his chest. Chuckling, Sam lifts her to his arms and gives her machine gun kisses, while beside them the cargo shelf lets off a clunk and then sharply snaps up from the floor.

There's a medium-sized cargo container on it.

"Seeds, and a few saplings, packet of hydroponics fertilisers," the Elder says, rolling back into view. "Something to get you started – also added in a growth chart in there."

"Hydroponic?" Sam asks, while leaning to get the package, making Lou shriek delightedly as this tilts her too from side to side. "What's that?"

"Water farming – cheaper and safer these days, with most of the soil stripped bare," the old man says, leaning away to check something, a monitor probably. "You'll want to start with the Aeroponic kit 6 or Hydroponics Kit 4 or – or 3 will do you in a pinch, if you are limited on space. And a germination tray, but for that you can really use anything, even an old cargo container will do. Here's what you do…"

Sam listens and then quickly takes out his phone, to make notes. Lou looks between him and it and asks, "Poto?" to which Sam shakes his head. "Later, baby, gotta write this down now. We'll take photos later."

The Elder peers at the curiously. "No one at home to lend a hand, I assume?" he asks thoughtfully. "Since you brought the little one with?"

"No, I've got… no one at home," Sam says with a shake of his head. "And not much in the way of things either. Can you show me what the hydroponics kits look like on the chiralgram?"

"Sure thing, son," the Elder says, and then the chiralgram changes, showing him a rack of what look like pipes. "This is number 3 hydroponic kit, very old school. We used to make these things with PVC pipes and not much else, when we first got off the grid. This is 4, which is a more advanced version, much better water flow and filtration system – a more plug and play model, really. Not much maintenance, so it's good for beginners…"

Sam nods along and jots everything down, while Lou watches the phone screen and his thumbs, going over the keypad. "Okay," Sam says then. "I don't suppose you could load the designs for me in a memory chip? I don't have full a chiral network connection yet."

"No? You of all people?" the old man asks. "You are the one who forged this network, aren't you?"

"Just the one who put in some of the finishing touches," Sam shakes his head. "Not in a hurry to join, myself."

The Elder blinks and leans back a little, watching him closely. "So all that talk of reuniting the nation was bullshit after all?"

Sam looks up and grimaces. "No," he says. "Not – not really. Some good came of it, but… nothing's all good. I had reasons for doing what I did, pushing that agenda, but it was never my agenda."

"Hmm," the Elder answers, noncommittal. "And yet you talked all of us over, to serve a cause you didn't believe in yourself."

Sam blows out a breath. "As a whole, it's a good thing," he says. "For me in particular, in this particular moment, it ain't. I've done my bit, anyway – if I stayed, it would be just more of the same, and I'm – done. Did my bit, served my time."

"Hm. And this is the reward for a hero, then, self-banishment to the outskirts of society?" the Elder asks. "Why not settle down in a city, in comfort and luxury?"

"Once a porter, forever chiralium-stained," Sam scoffs. "And I'm even worse, being a repatriate. They would've never let me stay. I piss acid and throw up tar."

"Ah," the Elder says, coughing. "And the little one?"

Sam looks down at Lou, who is looking between them, uncertain. Sam sighs and gives her a gentle squeeze. "She isn't exactly normal either," he murmurs.

"I see. That would be your Bridge Baby, then, out of the pod now?" the Elder hums. "Yes, I see. Hm. Have you been taking anti-chiralium medication, at all?"

Sam hesitates, shifting where he sits. He hasn't. Not in… well over a decade. Back before, before he left Bridges, he took it regularly, and those were the very early versions of the medication, but since then… he hadn't really cared to.

A bit perversely, he'd kind of wanted to see what would happen, once the contamination got bad enough. Would it be enough to finally do him in? It hadn't so far. All it had done is cause him a headache, and probably perpetuated the fucked up body chemistry he was now working with. But now…

Sam feels the weight of Lou in his arms, almost half a kilo heavier than she was when he took her out of the pod, and… maybe it's time to start concerning himself with these things. As far as he knows he's still a repatriate, and Lou might be too, who knows. His contamination is still probably not good for her, long term.

Would it mean that his blood would no longer work as Anti-BT weaponry though?

"Here," the Elder says, and the cargo shelf snaps up again, with a small container this time. "I have more than I likely have the time to use. Take it."

Sam looks at the medicine packet and then nods, accepting it. "Thank you," he says roughly, not sure when the last time someone actually gave him something medicine-related – instead of just… taking it from him. "I don't know if they even work on me. As a repatriate, my biology is different, somehow."

"Well, do as you feel is the best," the old man says. "But it might be something you would want to start looking into. A parent's first duty is to protect their children, after all – and I think that should mean even from themselves."

Sam nods, not saying anything, and puts the medicine packet on his back. "Any other nuggets of wisdom, before I go? It's getting late, and we have to make it through a BT zone to get back."

The Elder shakes his head, tutting. "It's a dangerous life you lead, son," he says. "I suppose I could leave you with something else, other than the materials you are taking with. Have you ever had blueberries, Sam?"

Sam frowns and shakes his head slowly.

The old man smiles. "Then, boy, do I have a treat for you and the little one."


 

The drive down the mountain where the Elder lives is an exercise in caution, as it always is. Sam inches his way down slowly, with Lou peering over the wheel to see the steep incline they're taking, making little squeals whenever they bump on something. "Yeah," Sam says. "It's exciting, isn't it, almost crashing here. Settle down, baby…"

She giggles, but settles down – and then Sam's phone goes off and almost gives him a heart attack, just as the truck makes a little bump over a rock. "Oh for –"  he mutters, wedges the truck on a rock to keep it from slipping down the slope without his say so, pulls the hand break, and then picks the damn phone up. "Bit busy here, what?"

"Sam, you're not home."

Fragile? "No, I'm doing a – milk run," Sam says, coughing and pats Lou's belly as she squeals excitedly, as they hang there, at nearly 45 degree angle. "Don't tell me you're at my shelter."

"I am," she says, almost serene. "It is raining."

"Well, I hope you brought an umbrella then," Sam says, a little irritated. She could've called ahead. "I'm eight hours away, and not getting there any time sooner."

"I'm not alone."

Sam hesitates at that and then closes his eyes and sighs. "All the more reason to not let you in, isn't it?" he says. "Sit tight, enjoy the scenery. I'll be there in eight hours."

"Sam –" he hangs up.

Lou looks up at him, blinking, patting her hands together.

"Well, not a problem I was expecting," Sam mutters. "Uninvited guests. Tch. And here I was feeling bored and lonely and everything. I think I am going to miss that."

He turns the phone off and then shoves the phone in his pocket. "Never mind, baby. Let's see if we can make our way down from here without dying, hm?" Lou grins like that's something exciting, looking at him with breathless expectation. Man, they're both nuts, aren't they? "Yeah, okay, you got me," Sam agrees, and disengages the break. "Down we go. Hold onto your hat, Lou."

Lou, obligingly, grabs a hold of her hat, and down they go, at probably not baby-safe speeds, but just for her excited squealing, it's worth it. The truck gets banged up a bit, but… it's been through worse. And so have they.

Sam veers off the mountain side on two wheels, and then crashes down onto a path worn into the dirt by other porters and travellers. Lou claps delightedly, and with a grin Sam guns it towards the main road, much to her enjoyment. "Speed demon," he murmurs, and Lou wiggles happily.

It ends up taking about six hours to make back – the BTs aren't back yet from his last cut through, or maybe Fragile thinned the herd there, she has the means to see them, after all, and the same access to hematic weaponry as every other porter. Either way, Sam can just drive through the dead zone without having to slow down for anything but the terrain and then speed towards his hill where he sees a truck, waiting. Apparently now that she's no longer jumping around, Fragile has descended down onto his level, and started using ground vehicles. Wonders never cease.

Sam can see Fragile getting out of the truck as he urges his up and to the hill, so apparently she and whoever she'd brought with her had been waiting inside it. Sam almost feels sorry for them, except he's spent hours on end cooped up in trucks, and it's not so bad, honestly. Warmer than sitting in a cave, anyway.

Sam drives next to her truck, winching down a window. "I honestly didn't expect you to wait," he comments.

"Some packages are more important than comfort," she says, and folds her arms. "A milk run? I thought you were settling down."

"I am also still building the shelter, and I need materials," Sam says, a convenient excuse as it's also true. "Who's the package?"

Fragile arches her brows and steps out of the way, so that Sam can see into her truck. There, on the shotgun seat, sits Deadman – dead asleep, and snoring.

Sam's stomach does a weird little jolt and he swallows. "Oh," he says, and blinks. "Didn't… expect that."

"We've kept in touch. I met him in Lake Knot," Fragile says, "And when I mentioned I was going to have a porter deliver you a package, he engaged Fragile Express in a contract. It was too important to let anyone else carry it," she adds and smiles. "And you kept us out in the rain for –" she checks the time. "Six hours. I thought you said eight."

"Well… Lou likes going fast," Sam mutters, looking at Deadman. He's got his glasses off, a rare sight – looks tired, too. "Shit," he mutters, and then takes out his phone, to unlock his shelter. "Drive right in, I've got a garage, there's space for your truck."

"Great," Fragile says and motions him to go ahead. "After you."

Sam drives in, and Fragile follows soon after, bringing her truck to a halt next to his. The movement must've jostled Deadman awake, because as Fragile turns off the engine, the passenger's side door of her truck opens, and the man stumbles out.

"Oww, my back," he groans, stretching with an audible crack. "Those seats are not made for comfort," he says and then spots Sam, standing a little awkward by his own truck. "There you are – and oh, Lou," he says and quickly trundles closer. "Look how big she is!"

Sam bows his head, looking at Lou, who blinks with astonishment, and then lets out a shriek, reaching for Deadman immediately. Sam barely manages to get her off the harness before she squirms out of it herself, and there's nothing to it but to hand her over to Deadman, she wouldn't settle for anything less. Deadman accepts her, automatic and awkward, and Sam has to support her at the back to keep her from falling right off his hands.

"You gotta get a hold on her, now," Sam says with a snort. "She squirms around a lot."

"Oh, yes, right – hello, little Lou," Deadman says, his face going soft as Lou babbles excited nonsense at him, patting at his chest and trying to reach for his face. "I'd ask if she'd missed me, but I think I have the proof right here."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, a little rough. Not that Lou ever showed signs of missing anyone, it's obvious she had, anyway. At least she definitely remembers Deadman. "But what are you doing here?"

"Well… you… you kept sending me messages. I had to see for myself, of course," Deadman says, a little awkward, not meeting his eyes. "I feared – I had to see for myself."

"Right," Sam says slowly. Feared what?

Fragile looks at them from the side and coughs. "I do have another package for you," she says, smiling wryly, and holds it out. It's her umbrella. "I meant to give it to you, but forgot until after we had unloaded. It's for your last jump."

"What, I still get to do that? I thought you stopped," Sam asks, accepting the umbrella with one hand, and supporting Lou with the other.

"I have – but you still have one jump, wherever you might want to go," Fragile says, smiling. "Wherever I can take you, anyway.

"Right," Sam says again and then folds the umbrella in. He doubts he will ever use it, but… it might make things easier for Deadman, make his trip back to the capital quicker. "Well. Thanks."

"Sam," Deadman says, looking up from Lou, whose hat has gotten knocked a little askew, and a tuft of blond hair showing. "She has hair now?"

"Yeah. People grow hair, Deadman," Sam says while Lou giggles. "Babies too. It's a thing that happens."

"You didn't mention it in your messages," Deadman murmurs and looks back at her. "I've only ever handled BBs, not actual babies – not normal babies," he amends awkwardly and then makes a face. "I didn't know they grow hair this early."

Sam snorts. "That's nothing. Wait until you hear about the things she shouldn't be able to do yet, but does anyway," he says and picks Lou from Deadman's arms – the guy is not holding her very securely. "Come on," he says to his two guests. "There's not much here, but you can print a meal and something hot to drink, at least. Oh, and I have blueberries."

"Blueberries?" Deadman and Fragile ask together. "Where did you get those?"

"Another prepper," Sam shrugs, not sure if to feel dismayed or not by the fact that they know what blueberries are. Is it just him that loses these things to the rain? "Come on."

They follow him from the garage, Deadman with his usual weird mixture of absolute confidence and awkwardness. Fragile comes in more cautiously, looking around and smiling a little at the toys on Sam's bed. Sam ignores them, refusing to feel embarrassed about his home, such as it is, and carries Lou to the kitchen, waving them around. "It's a standard setup, should have no trouble working it," he says and heads out. "Knock yourself out."

"Wait, where are you going?" Deadman asks, alarmed. "We only just got inside."

"And so did we, and we've been out all day," Sam says. "Lou needs a clean up."

"Um," Deadman answers, looking astonished. "I assume you mean –"

"Yeah, the kid's got bodily functions now," Sam snorts. "With all the fun that comes with it. So, take what you want, I'll be back in a bit."

Deadman hesitates while Fragile quickly goes for the food printer, very resolutely ignoring what's being said. Sam leaves them behind – and is in no way surprised that very soon after, Deadman follows him to the bathroom, which is where Sam ended up setting the baby changing station for convenience's sake.

"I – I looked into the developmental stages of infants and premature babies," Deadman says awkwardly, while, in his usual style, coming to hover way too close. "It seems little Lou, while technically a premie, is developing at an average rate of a full-term baby, as far as general growth go. Normally premature babies' growth rate is stalled, but hers seems good," he says and then pauses to stare, as Sam strips out of his suit and throws it into the cleaner – he's not exposing naked Lou to that much chiralium.

"Yeah," Sam says. "I've been reading baby books, keeping track. She's doing well, I think. Growing, gaining weight. She's ahead though," he says, and washes his hands quickly up to the elbows, just in case. "A lot of milestones she passed in the pod."

"I did wonder, BB's get more stimulus than fetuses in their mother's bellies, never mind the stalled developmental stage. Very few studies have been made on what it actually does to a BB's brain, to exist so long in an artificially extended foetal stage," Deadman says, and cranes his neck to watch, as Sam finally goes about getting her out of her clothes. "Hmm," he hums, seemingly fascinated. "You are handy at this," he comments, sounding surprised.

"It's been nearly a month, Deadman, I learned." Sam answers flatly, glancing at him while Lou starts squirming excitedly, knowing the part she likes the most is coming up. "Now get out."

"What, why?"

"I'm going to have a shower with her," Sam says plainly. "Get out."

"Oh," Deadman says, and coughs. "Right, I see. I will – wait in the kitchen with Miss Fragile, then." He hesitates a moment longer and then heads off. Still awkward. 

Sam peers after him, shaking his head, before stripping down fully and scooping Lou up. "Clean up time, Lou," he says. "And don't –"

Of course, she pees on him. Of course she does.

Well, at least she does it before soap comes into play, these days.


 

Fragile has made herself some sort of thick soup, and Deadman is drinking coffee, when Sam comes out with Lou, both of them in clean sets of clothing, all clear of chiralium, he hopes.

"Making yourselves comfortable?" Sam asks.

"Thanks for the food," Fragile says. "It's appreciated."

"It's weird not seeing you eat cryptobiotes –" Sam starts to say, and then she lifts a spoon. "You know what, never mind." There's cryptobiotes floating in the soup. Gross.

"It's not as good for you, compared to when they're fresh," she comments. "But sometimes I like a change. You look good, Sam," she says then. "Been doing well?"

"Well enough. Hasn't been long since I settled here, though, stayed with preppers here and there," Sam answers and coughs, going to the printer to get a fresh bottle for Lou. It's great, being able to print just the bottle, for once – and not a whole kit, most of which would go unused.

"So this is a new shelter?" Deadman asks, holding his coffee cup in both hands. "It looks new – did you build it?"

"Printed it, same difference," Sam answers and leans back against the counter, Lou nestled on one arm as he offers her the bottle. She accepts it without fuss, so must've been getting hungry. "It's still under work, haven't gotten all of the rooms printed out yet. Shit," he mutters them, to himself. "Should've unloaded the truck."

"Building materials, right?" Fragile asks.

"And seeds and stuff. Gonna have a greenhouse," Sam says and looks at them.

It's a bit weird, being the host and not the… whatever he was at Bridges private rooms, whenever he got accosted by uninvited visitors. Half of the time he felt kind of like an unwilling participant in some sort of drug trial there, rather than an occupant. Here, in this place, he's kind of the boss, isn't he? It's his, and they're the guests.

Funny, how such a little thing changes the atmosphere and the balance of the room. Now he's standing up and they're sitting down, and neither look like they're about to come up to his face, for once. He's not sure how he feels about it – just noticing it is bewildering.

"So," he says, while Lou hums contently as she drinks. "What are you doing here?"

Fragile arches a brow. "Delivering packages," she says and smiles. "I won't be staying long, don't worry. I have to head back to Lake Knot."

"Right," Sam says and looks at Deadman, who is getting up.

Deadman puts his empty coffee cup on the counter, looking awkward. "I just – came to visit?" he says defensively. "I wanted to see how our little one was doing – can I not just want to visit, for a while?"

Fragile smiles into her soup, and Sam eyes Deadman warily. The guy really can't lie worth shit, can he. Sam's about to tell him no, when Lou grabs a hold of his thumb, tugging at it. Looking down at her, Sam can see her looking at the guy – there's a little squint around her eyes, like she's smiling. Like she's happier, just having him there. Sam frowns a little, not sure, but… he had been kind of bouncing off the walls, by himself.

And if it had to be anyone, then he'd rather it be Deadman.

"Well, I guess… why not," Sam says and coughs – and is promptly grabbed into an awkward, sideways hug as Deadman tries to hold him without crushing Lou between them. Sam freezes momentarily while Lou lets out a delighted noise, and then pats the man's back awkwardly. "Alright, okay. Mind Lou –"

"I have missed you, Sam," Deadman says, squeezing his shoulder. "It is good to see you so well."

"Yeah, um. You too," Sam says and coughs, holding still until Deadman lets go. Then, shifting Lou in his arms, he looks at Fragile. "Any hope I could contract Fragile Express for a material delivery?" he asks.

"Hm?" she asks, putting another drowned cryptobiote in her mouth.

Sam shrugs, glancing at Deadman. "Gonna need a bedroom, aren't I?"

Chapter Text

The night spent with Deadman and Fragile in the shelter with him is… it's something. Sam is a little better staying with people now, maybe, he got some practice while staying with the preppers, but this is Deadman and Fragile, and that's just different. They know him, and it's just… it's just different.

"This is the layout you are planning?" Deadman asks while poking around his shelter terminal. "It's rather sizeable, don't you think?"

Sam shrugs. "Everyone told me bigger was better," he mutters, which makes Fragile cough into her collar. She's looking through his shelf of mostly baby books, and quickly looks away with a smile when he glances at her. "And I've hauled more materials than this. It'll take a while, but I'll manage it."

"And you are printing the greenhouse next?" Deadman asks and hums. "If Fragile Express will be bringing you more materials –"

"We will," Fragile promises. "As soon as I find a safe route up here for my porters."

"Then perhaps start with a bedroom or two, instead," Deadman says, reasonably. "The material cost seems to be the same – two bedrooms, or one greenhouse. Right now, the other seems more usable."

Sam looks at him and then walks over to see. It really is the same material amount, he hadn't even checked, because he didn't really need the bedroom, himself, not yet. But now that he has guests, and there might be porters coming in who might want to stay the night… "Yeah, maybe," he agrees, reaching around Deadman to check the material costs for other rooms, just in case he could squeeze in something else. A toilet maybe – but that would use up his materials. Or… one bedroom and the hot tub room.

That's tempting. That's really tempting. And it's not like the second bedroom would see much use, after Fragile and Deadman left, anyway. And Fragile's leaving tomorrow. Hm…

"Really, Sam?" Deadman asks, seeing what he's looking at.

"Shut up. It's my house," Sam says. "Fragile could stay in the bedroom for the night, you can stay here, right? And you can take the room after she's gone."

Deadman coughs, glancing back at the room. "It is a little sparse in here, and your bed is small."

"I am printing another," Sam says, rolling his eyes. "Going with this."

Deadman folds his arms, huffing, and watches as Sam sets the shelter printer to work. It would take a couple of hours for the rooms to be added in, but at the end of it they'd have a place to put Fragile up for the night – and Sam would have his hot tub. Worth it.

"You could have made a bigger bathroom overall and put the tub there," Deadman comments.

"Didn't wanna," Sam says and flicks through to the bed selection. "There, pick what you like. Fragile can choose a bed once the room's done printing."

"Well that's nice of you," Fragile says, coming over finally. "All your books are about babies."

Sam shrugs. "I have a baby," he points out. She's currently asleep on his bed, surrounded by her toys and pillows. "What were you expecting?"

Fragile shrugs. "Something about homesteading, maybe?" she asks, amused. "You are quite the homemaker now."

Sam shakes his head. "For that I can just ask other preppers. They're better at it, and explain it better," he mutters. And honestly, he hadn't even thought to check if there were books or articles about it. There probably were, but… first hand experience was always better, in his opinion.

"Is that what you are now, then, a prepper?" Deadman asks thoughtfully. "No longer running porter rounds, not even as Relief?"

"No," Sam agrees, looking away. "I don't know, haven't gotten into the swing of things yet. Guess we'll see."

Deadman and Fragile exchange looks, like they've probably been talking about it, making guesses. Sam looks between them and then shakes his head, a little annoyed, moving away. You'd think after almost a month he'd finally stop being a point of interest for people, he thinks, and goes to check up on Lou.

She's apparently not only not bothered by the talking, but she's actually sleeping much deeper than she usually does. Maybe it's soothing for her. Sam tugs the blanket better over her.

There's an awkward moment of silence. "Everyone misses you, Sam," Deadman then says. "Heartman, Lockne, even Die-Hardman. I understand why you left, of course, and why you might not feel like coming back, but you should know that – you are missed."

"Right," Sam agrees, more uncomfortable than just sarcastic. They actually might, and maybe he's even a little sorry about it. "Good to know, I guess," he says, sitting down on the bed to watch Lou.

Another moment of silence, and then Fragile moves out of the room, saying, "I will get a drink," leaving them alone. Deadman walks over, slow.

"No one will take Lou away from you," Deadman says. "They'd have to go through a lot of people to do it."

Sam glances up at him, and then sighs. "She was still dead when I got her out of the pod, Deadman," he says quietly. "And I'm not sure how or why she came to. I tried to resuscitate her, but it didn't work – she just… woke up, when I was holding her."

"Another repatriate?" Deadman asks, fascinated, looking down at Lou.

"Don't know, not testing it, not ever," Sam says. "But something happened. When she came to, she was holding a quipu – and I didn't have one. And she definitely got DOOMS too, she can still sense BT's, probably see 'em too. There's something going on with her, either way. And wouldn't Bridges want to know what, huh?"

Deadman shakes his head slowly and sits on the other side of Lou, watching her as she clutches onto D-Dog in her sleep. "We have spent years studying DOOMS and repatriates," he says. "There are many with the abilities – it is unlikely even Die-Hardman would stoop so low. Lou is yours, after all. Surely even he is a little sentimental."

"Tch," Sam answers. "Wasn't before," he mutters and looks up at Deadman. "Say I go back. Take Lou and everything. Would people let us settle in Capital Knot?"

"You'll always have your private room," Deadman offers. "No one can say you're not welcome there."

"Outside the city in a distro center," Sam scoffs. "Would I be let into the city proper? I doubt it, not with as much chiralium as I got in my system. And even if I did settle in the distro center with Lou, how long would it take before someone sent a request my way? Since I'm already there and at loose ends, surely I can run a delivery or two, right? Just as a favour to you, or Die-Hardman, or anyone?"

Deadman shakes his head. "Anyone can refuse, Sam. Just don't take a contract."

"Didn't seem to do shit, when Bridget forced her contract on me. And you and Die-hardman, with her body. And then with all the fucking rest," Sam says and shakes his head. "I'm done, Deadman. I don't want to be involved with any of that anymore. All I want is right here," he nods at Lou. "And that's it."

Constant itch to get moving aside, of course, but Deadman doesn't need to know that. Would ruin his argument here.

"Well," the doctor says, coughing. "I certainly see where you are coming from, Sam. And I didn't really think I could talk you over. Just… to show you it is still an option, and that you would have a place." He shakes his head. "I do understand the reasons why you left, and why you might not feel inclined to return. Respect them, even."

"Right," Sam says and looks at him. "Why did you come here, really?"

Deadman shifts where he's sitting, looking away. He seems almost embarrassed. "I missed you," he says then. "And the little one. It's not the same, without you at Bridges."

Sam considers his expression and then rests his elbow on his knee, leaning his cheek on his palm. The guy actually seems honest this time, if awkward about it. "Huh," he says.

Deadman fiddles with his gloves and gives him a look. "Things are better now, of course. Different, and not perfect by all means, but better – new advancements are being made, new discoveries. The chiral network isn't done giving us new gifts yet – we're still unearthing lost knowledge, every day. But it's not – the same without you there."

"Hm," Sam says, scratching at his scalp and looking away. "Heard something about expanding the network outside the UCA," he says then, keeping his voice level. "That true?"

"There's been talks," Deadman agrees and looks down at his hands. "People are still scattered in our neighbouring nations, as were we, but like us, there's people who are trying to bring their nation together. Of course it would be better, in a way, to bring more people into the network, to unearth more lost knowledge, more lost history, but… obviously there are some issues."

"Like the fact that you use Bridge Babies to make the Knots."

"Yes… like that," Deadman agrees, a little uncomfortable.

Sam tilts his head, watching him. "How are the Beaches doing?"

"Miss Lockne has been writing and rewriting the network software to untangle them – with Mama's help, of course," Deadman assures him. "Heartman says it is already having a recognisable effect, he has seen it working during his little ventures on the other side. The Beaches slowly are coming untangled. It will take some more work, of course, and for the network to work at all they have to connect to the Beach, so… it is difficult. But we are working on it."

"Right," Sam says. "So, still risky."

Deadman hums. "There is nothing in a way of better alternative," he says quietly. "The chiral network is a marvel. A dangerous, eldritch marvel, that offers as many gifts as it does dangers."

"Yeah," Sam says. And people can't argue it's not worth it, even with those risks, even knowing what it almost led them to. Almost destroyed the world and all life as they know it – but damn, it's still just so handy, isn't it? "Right."

They're quiet for a moment, Sam staring at a floor while Deadman looks down, and then up, searching for something to say maybe, before his eyes land on Lou. "She really seems to be doing well," he says.

"Don't need to sound so surprised," Sam snorts.

"I was worried, deathly so," Deadman admits. "She was dead in the pod, alive but dead. I looked for anything I could do for her, but there was nothing. Nothing that science could do for her, nothing but to take her to the incinerator. I – I didn't dare to hope."

Sam hums. That he gets. "She wakes up three times every night, to feed," he says. "Just a fair warning."

"Oh, I never sleep that much anyway," Deadman says and smiles.


 

Fragile sleeps in the new bedroom and then leaves first thing in the next morning, waving Sam off when he offers her to print something for the ride. "It's a day trip, along the roads," she says. "See you later, alligator."

"Right. Be seeing you," Sam says after her, while Lou waves at her and Deadman hangs back, awkward, but also very resolutely not moving at all. Fragile smiles and then gets back in her truck, and soon she's backed out of the garage and the shelter. Just like that, she's gone – not quite as fast and dramatic as it would've been if she had been jumping, maybe, but… almost as abrupt.

"So," Deadman says, looking at him and clapping his hands together. "What do you do around here?"

"Nothing," Sam says, lifting Lou higher and wrapping both arms around her, to hold her tight. "Pretty much nothing."

"That sounds… non-productive," Deadman says, frowning a little. "Nothing at all?"

"S'why I wanted the greenhouse. Something to do," Sam says and shrugs. "I got food, water, warmth, power, and enough materials to cover emergencies. Short of that… there's nothing."

"I see," Deadman says, peering at him somewhat untrustingly. "And you are fine with that?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You are a very active man, Sam," Deadman points out. "Your fitness levels are off the charts, and it is known that people who are used to high level of physical activity tend to like to stay physically active – it is a well known physiological and psychological effect of the endorphin release of regular physical activity. You could call it addictive. And you are also known for doing more than strictly speaking necessary. Loading up yourself with more cargo than is needed. I just… one would think you would get bored."

Sam makes a face at that. "Well," he says and then sighs. Fuck it. "Yeah."

Deadman grins a little at that. "I suppose that was the reason for your milk run?"

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," Sam says, shaking his head and heading back inside from the garage. "I'm still getting used to this, alright?"

"There's nothing wrong with that, Sam," Deadman says quickly. "I didn't mean to laugh."

Sam ignores him. "How are things in the capital, aside from everything? How's Die-Hardman's presidency coming along?"

"Well," Deadman says and tilts his head kind of ruefully. "I have been forced to admit that he is not terrible at it. Perhaps even better than President Strand," he says. "I still cannot say I trust him, but so far he has not gone against any of his promises, and he is sincerely dedicated to the betterment of the nation and the spread of the Network to those settlements and cities that were not necessary to reach Edge Knot."

"Down south and up north, huh?" Sam asks. He'd wandered around when connecting the network, but aside from that, it had been pretty much a beeline from east to west, to get Edge Knot hooked up. There were plenty of  places he'd never gone though, a lot of cities that weren't needed to make that chain.

"Just so," Deadman agrees. "We have eight Q-pids in the field now, connecting various smaller settlements and shelters," he says. "We're also building distribution centers in non-Knot cities."

Sam nods slowly. "Right," he says. It's weird to feel like he's missed out on something, but… obviously he had. "Eight Q-pids? Really?"

"They are necessary for making the connections," Deadman agrees, as they sit down on the couch in the living room. "They're being carried by trusted Bridges porters – you know some of them, I believe. Most of them are from previous expeditions. Benjamin Hancock, Aaron Hill, George Baton…"

Sam listens quietly while Lou crawls on his chest, to get to his face. She still needs help with it, not much strength in her legs, but she can sort of squirm where she wants to go, if you give her a little push. Then she's up at his face, patting at his chin and cheeks and tugging at his whiskers. "Ow," Sam says, pointed, and she pats his chin apologetically, before reaching up to go mwah on his chin.

Deadman trails away, watching them. Sam glances at him, as Lou lays her head down into the space under his chin. "You were saying?"

"Right, where was I?" Deadman says and rubs his hands together. "Right, yes, Ben Hancock took on a BB again, before heading further south. A lot of big old cities that way, a lot of BTs, so it was for the best."

"A BB, huh," Sam murmurs, resting his hand on Lou's back. "Are they still… making them?"

"BBs?" Deadman asks and looks away. "Not currently, but as for what will follow… They are too useful as hardware for them to stop. Most people can't see or sense BTs, not until they're already being gobbled up, so… BBs are a terrible, unfortunate necessity."

Sam looks down, and then closes his eyes. He shouldn't judge, really. He was with Lou for who knows how long, when she was a BB. That makes him as culpable, doesn't it? "Is there really no other way to do it, sensing BTs? My odradek could do it."

"Your odradek was connected to a BB then," Deadman says quietly and shakes his head. "There is no other way. Only people with DOOMS or BBs connected to the other side can do it. I promise you, Sam, I have been looking. But there is just no way."

Stroking his fingers up and down Lou's back as rests there, Sam sighs. "Right… right," he murmurs, and opens his eyes. "I never asked, but…. The mothers," he says. "Lou was BB-28, so there were 27 before her, right? Does that mean there's 27 brain dead women somewhere on life support?"

"… no. There are nine of them," Deadman says, looking away, his hands clenching and opening where he rests them on his knees. "We have been finally able to recover the files. They all agreed to the program, and were well compensated, when it became apparent that they would likely not survive the pregnancy for one reason or another. Former US government employees, you know, and Bridges employees too, two scientists, they all agreed. We have it on video and everything."

Sam lifts his head. "Agreed to what?"

"To serve as… mothers for BBs," Deadman says with a wince, and glances at him. "It is not only one mother to one BB, Sam. They have multiple, never knowing it, never feeling it."

"Fucking shit, man," Sam mutters, covering his eyes with his hand.

"President Strand was very keen on the program, covered her bases. It's all there, in the paperwork," Deadman says and swallows. "And there is – there is something I must tell you, which might come as a shock."

"What, worse than this?" Sam demands.

"It – it has to do with how you came to be adopted by President Strand in the first place," Deadman says, looking uncomfortable, shifting where he sits. "It's – there is no easy way to put it, but –"

"But I was a BB?" Sam asks, to make it easy for him.

Deadman looks at him sharply. "You knew?"

Sam draws a breath and then settles back down, Lou cosy on his chest. "Not before. I hooked up with Lou, before I took her to the incinerator, and I – remembered. Those flashes I told you about, the memories… they weren't Lou's. They were mine, bouncing back from her to me," he admits. "My memories when I was a BB. Cliffort Unger, he… was my father."

"And Lisa Bridges was your mother," Deadman says quietly, nodding. "Seems like a terrible twist of fate, doesn't it?"

Sam hums and looks up at the ceiling. "I think I – learned about some of this, at some point," he murmurs. "Not about the BB experiments things or about Cliff, but about Lisa. I took the name Bridges for a reason, right? And it wasn't because of the Bridges, the organisation. Can't – can't really remember though."

Which reminds him – the chiralium scrubbers he got from the Elder.

"Here, take her," Sam says, carefully gathering Lou from his chest.

Deadman blinks, his eyes widening behind his glasses. "What – what should I –"

"Just lean back – like that," Sam says, sitting up and then easing Lou onto Deadman's chest, to lay there on her front, her head tilted to the side. "There, all cosy – put your hand there, so that she doesn't – yeah, like that. Gotta go get something, be right back."

"Sam," Deadman says, a little alarmed as Lou perks up excitedly and Sam quickly ducks out of the room, heading for the storage room. There is the package of meds – and the seeds and saplings, which he also brings with him. He could set them to germinate somewhere, while waiting for the materials for the greenhouse.

Deadman is struggling with Lou when Sam heads back. He's got the man's quipu in one hand and is patting at his face with the other, trying to grab for his glasses. Deadman doesn't seem to know what to do with that or how to ward her off, so he's sort of trying to lean away while she leans over him, almost lying on his face. It's… kind of hilarious. And adorable. She looks even smaller in Deadman's hold – the man's not exactly small, after all – but she also looks cosy. So, Sam leaves her there and sits down with the package.

"Help," Deadman says. "Sam, please."

Sam tilts his head, while Lou babbles excitedly and finally gets hold of the glasses, tugging at them while Deadman makes faces. Victorious, Lou holds the glasses and the quipu up to him, to show him her spoils of war. Sam snorts. "Well done, baby, you sure did the thing," he says, amused, and opens the Elder's package.

Deadman gives him a huff and then looks at the container Sam's holding. "Medicine?" Deadman asks.

"Anti-chiralium meds," Sam says and takes out the pill bottle. "I figure it's time I start clearing up my buildup, before it hurts Lou. Is this good for me?"

"Chiralium scrubbers are rarely good for anyone, the detox process can be quite violent," Deadman says, while taking the bottle from his hand and squinting at it. "Hm. These are not prescribed for you."

"Obviously not," Sam says, leaning his elbow on the backrest of the couch. Lou is examining her spoils with a thoughtful look, looking between the quipu and the glasses. "But can I take 'em, will they do anything? Lou, baby, no."

She stops before she can bang the two together and makes a face. Then she holds them out to Sam. "Poto!"

Hm. "Yeah," Sam decides and grabs his phone.

Deadman gives him a slightly alarmed look, while Lou holds her stolen goods up to the camera. Sam captures them just like that, Deadman with his shirt ruffled and a bottle of pills in hand, and Lou grinning like the little demon she is. Sam shows the screen to them both and Lou nods with great satisfaction. 

"Very amusing, yes," Deadman says, looking a little flushed, while Sam saves the picture as his screen background. "May I have my glasses back now, please?" 

Lou very magnanimously holds them out to his face, and Deadman takes then back. "Thank you, Lou," he says and glances at Sam. "She's very smart."

"Mmh," Sam agrees and puts the phone away. "So, the pills?"

"Right, of course," The other man hums, opening the bottle and giving it a little sniff. "Two twice a day, twelve hours apart," he says then, and hands it back over. "You have to prepare yourself, though. It's not going to be pleasant."

Well, neither is throwing up tar. "Thanks," Sam says, opening the bottle and taking out two pills. They're not very big, at least.

"Chiralium-purging medicine interrupts the anti-timefall effect of cryptobiotes," Deadman warns him. "So you might hold off on those until you've had at least a ten day course of the scrubbers. Might make yourself sick, otherwise."

"I'll keep that in mind," Sam says, and downs the pills. "You think it will do anything to the effect of my blood?"

"I suppose we will see, won't we?" Deadman says and looks down at Lou. She's holding the quipu still in her hands, shaking it a little from side to side to make the strands of it swing. "That is not a toy, little one, it is a very important symbol, a totem, not something to be played around with."

"It is now," Sam says, smiling, as Lou shakes the thing in her hand. 

Deadman draws a breath to argue, and then Lou gives him a big and proud toothless smile. "Well."

"Yeah," Sam agrees.

And then Lou stuffs the quipu in her mouth, grinning all the while, and they have to hastily wrestle it from her.


 

Deadman isn't so used to sitting around doing nothing either, it seems. While Sam tries to settle at least a bit, the man goes through all the baby books like his life depends on it, and then delves into Sam's spotty network connection, to find out more about baby care. Lou in the meanwhile decides that her new favourite place is to just lay on Deadman – it's where she wants her naptime to happen from now on. Sam's a little jealous, maybe, but he can't really blame her. Compared to him, Deadman is probably a much softer surface to snuggle on.

It kind of leaves him at loose ends though. There really is nothing to do in the shelter. The itchiness of sitting still starts setting in towards the end of the second day back, and by the third, Sam is starting to wander from room to room restlessly again. The nausea of the chiralium detox doesn't really help, either.

"Perhaps you need a hobby," Deadman comments.

"Like what?" Sam asks, a little irritable, opening and closing his hands. Lou is snug on Deadman's lap again, so he goes  for push-ups now…

"Painting, carving, tinkering – paper craft?" Deadman suggests. "From what I have observed, most preppers seem to gravitate towards making things, or collecting curiosities to keep themselves busy while cooped up indoors. Perhaps something like that would do for you?"

Sam sighs. The only things he's ever built were with PCCs, and he's never really seen the point in collecting stuff. It's just more shit to haul when you move to the next place. Except, of course… he wouldn't be moving from here anytime soon, would he?

Sam steps a few steps forward and few steps back, full of that annoying energy that hasn't an outlet here. "Fuck it," he mutters and then drops down.

Deadman watches him, first confused and then fascinated, as Sam starts doing angry pushups.

"Well… I suppose that works too," Deadman comments wryly. "Hasn't there ever been anything you've liked to do, Sam? Aside from travelling perhaps?"

Sam grimaces at the floor and shakes his head. If there was, he's damn well forgotten it, hasn't he? Hell, he doesn't even remember what it was he did for Bridges, before becoming a porter. He did something, he was part of Bridges, but in what capacity? As a soldier, as a techie? Or maybe he was a porter back then too. Who knows. He certainly fucking doesn't.

Deadman sighs, keeping a hand on Lou as he sits up, holding her with a bit better care and confidence now. "Nothing at all?" he asks, regretful.

Sam holds himself up on his arms and looks at him. "Never needed anything but to move around," he says. "So I've never thought about it. And if there was anything – chiralium took care of that."

"I see," Deadman says, quiet. "I – did wonder. You've lost quite a deal to the timefall, haven't you, Sam?"

Sam feels his cheek flex as he grits his teeth and then continues the push up. It doesn't even feel like anything – his own weight is nothing to the cargo he's hauled. It doesn't even strain him, and it's nowhere near enough to actually make him work for it.

"I've never been outside much, myself," Deadman comments, rocking Lou absently. "I was made indoors, and indoors I stayed – the most I saw of the outside was at that cabin, and you remember what happened then. So I've been… relatively safe from the adverse effects of chiralium."

"Lucky you," Sam mutters.

"I always wondered – do you know what you've forgotten?"

"I don't. Forgot it, didn't I?" Sam says and pushes himself up harder, almost hard enough for his hands to come off the floor. Hm. "Forgot what I forgot, and forgot that I forgot it. Fuck even knows how much I lost, because I don't."

Deadman hums. "You… don't remember your family at all, do you? Bridget, your childhood – your wife?"

Sam scoffs at that, lowers his weight and pushes up, hard. Yeah, he can get his hands off the floor, no problem. Geez. "I remember some," he mutters. "Not much. Figure I didn't even want to remember, forgot on purpose. Forgot a lot of shit I didn't realise along with it."

The other man doesn't say anything for a moment, leaning back. Lou is awake now, watching him with her thumb in her mouth, her eyes wide. Sam glances at her and Deadman and then looks at the floor, embarrassed. Fuck, he's a mess, isn't he? He really is. At least Deadman doesn't say anything, doesn't judge – but he's watching like he gets it, which is almost worse.

Sam lowers his weight, chest brushing against the floor – and then feels a weight on his back, and then another, resting just over his shoulder blades. Sam grunts and then looks up.

Deadman propped up his sock-clad feet up on him, like he's a damn footrest.

"Looked like it was too easy for you," Deadman says, innocent, while relaxing against the backrest of the couch. "Go on."

"... You're something else," Sam mutters, more confused than anything. Then, glaring at the floor, he goes to push himself up, now with that weight pushing him down.

And… actually… it does make it better.

"Seems to me, Sam," Deadman says as Sam pushes against the weight of his legs, breathing a little harder now. "That we need to find you a new job."

Chapter Text

Deadman is much more excited about the whole thing than Sam. Not that Sam wouldn't want to find something he'd like to do, he would, he'd love to. But he's not nearly as excited as Deadman is, suggesting him things and then watching him try them. Sam would think the guy is a bit of a sadist and enjoying his suffering, except Deadman seems sincerely disappointed whenever something doesn't really catch Sam's interest.

Cooking, even with fake-printed ingredients, does not interest him in the slightest. It just ends up in a frustrating mess, and the result is nowhere near as neat or easy as printed equivalent. It doesn't help at all that Sam's getting more and more nauseous as the chiralium detoxing continues, and he spends half of every bathroom visit cursing with pain or throwing up. Food is a no go.

"Maybe carving, painting, something of the sort?" Deadman suggests, while Lou makes faces in his arms at the smell of the kitchen while Sam tries to scrub it clean again. "Many people are turning to producing art of many kinds, like your friend the Chiral Artist, and the Cosplayer, both make art of their own kind."

"Do I seem like art kind of guy to you?" Sam asks gruffly, throwing the scrubber into the sink and wincing at the sting. He'd burned himself on the stove, and the sting of it hasn't yet faded.

"Well, I try to not judge a book by its cover," Deadman says plainly. "You never know until you try, yes? So, why don't we try, I'm certain I saw an art kit in the available prints."

Sam sighs, washing his hands. "Fine, if you can download the print file. Remember, I'm not on the network yet."

"Yet," Deadman says, pointing a gloved finger at him. "Yet. I like that."

Sam shakes his head and finishes cleaning up the kitchen while Deadman heads to terminal to print the file. He succeeds at it too, somehow, and by the time Sam heads to the living room he and Lou are sitting on the living room floor, unfolding what was printed – canvases and paints and whatnot.

"I figured acrylic paints would be the easiest to start with," Deadman says cheerfully, while Lou holds tubes of paint in each hand, wiggling excitedly. "Shall we have a try?"

Sam eyes them warily and then picks up the package. "Deadman, this isn't baby safe."

"… ah, I didn't even – right," Deadman says and quickly takes the tubes from Lou, setting them down and standing up with her. "Well, me and little Lou will sit to the side, and you can have a try, alright? See what you can make of it."

Sam shuffles where he stands and then kneels down, scowling at the art supplies. They look like something he might've carried to the Cosplayer, or the Elder. "I don't know…"

"Sam, please," Deadman says earnestly. "Just try, you won't know if you don't try."

Sam sighs and nods. He feels awkward the whole while, trying to figure out how to open the tubes and where to put the paint and then he's staring at an empty white canvas and… "What the hell am I supposed to paint?"

"Anything, whatever you want, whatever comes to mind. The world is your oyster," Deadman says, while Lou whines discontentedly, trying to get off his lap and play with the paints. "No, little one, paint is most definitely not a toy. Here, play with this instead…" he gives her his quipu, and with a coo she accepts it and promptly starts shaking and jingling it around.

Sam eyes them, frowning, and then turns to the canvas.

Nothing comes of the painting, really. He's not sure what he even tries – to paint Lou, maybe? It doesn't look like anything, and it's pretty obvious he has a flimsy grasp of anatomy. He ends up painting over the initial mess with broad strokes of colour, gold and red and black, which looks like maybe something obscure, like some of the old paintings from art museums, what were they called… modern? Which is hilarious, since they were painted years and years ago, and modern day is a whole lot different than it was when they were made.

"Well, it's… it's certainly something," Deadman says, eyeing the finished thing, once all the white has been covered in splashes of colour. "I can see that hanging from someone's wall perhaps."

"Ugh, it's not for me, painting," Sam mutters and looks at Lou. She's still holding the quipu, tugging on the strands and watching them jingle. "Hm. I think I have an –"

There's a buzz from the terminal – proximity warning. There's someone on the hill, within the sensor ring. Quickly, with paint all over his hands, Sam jumps up to check – the system is registering a Fragile ID. A man on a truck – with cargo, verified cargo for Relief.

The porter pulls the truck right up to the shelter entrance and then goes to activate the terminal. Curiously, Sam watches through the system as the guy punches in the delivery detail, gets his cargo verified, and then begins hauling containers back and forth between his truck and the cargo shelf.

"You are not going to say hi to your guest?" Deadman asks curiously, coming closer to see with Lou in his arms – she's chewing idly on the quipu now, though she knows better than to actually eat it.

"Don't know 'em," Sam says. "Don't know if they know me. Not risking it, even if they're Fragile's people."

"That's cold," Deadman says, while Sam accepts the delivery through the automated system and sends the guy appropriate number of likes. "But I suppose I see where you are coming from. This is the delivery for the materials, then – for the greenhouse?"

"Yeah, should be great," Sam says and folds his arms. The porter finishes the delivery, takes his likes and waits to access the terminal.

"Seriously? Nothing?" the guy murmurs, and then with a shake of his head turns to leave. Not five minutes later, he's steering his truck down from the hill, aiming not for the BT zone, but around it, probably.

Sam snorts and then checks the system. The materials have already been added in, and he can print the greenhouse, with a little bit left over. Sam checks whether he has enough materials for other rooms, and in the end just sets the greenhouse printing. It would be connected to the living room by a door across from the one leading to the kitchen, making navigating the place easier.

"I suppose that will give you something to do, then, once it is done printing," Deadman comments, though he seems disappointed. "Still, I think you should think of something else to do as well, to keep yourself preoccupied. Boredom does dreadful things to the brain, you know. Literal brain rotter."

Sam snorts and looks at him and then at Lou, who looks up at him, the quipu hanging from her lips. She opens her mouth to babble at him, and the quipu falls – Sam catches it with one hand, ruffling her soft hair with the other. "Actually," Sam says, holding the quipu up. "Might have an idea."

"The… quipu?" Deadman asks, and then follows him curiously as Sam goes to check his drawer. "What of it – or do you mean, making things with your blood in them? I suppose it would be –"

He trails away as Sam comes away from the drawer, holding another quipu. They aren't identical, the two – the new one is coded differently. Sam hadn't really looked too deeply into the quipu Lou had grabbed, he hadn't really wanted to, but… it's Amelie's quipu.

"That is not one of ours," Deadman says.

"No, it's mine," Sam says, rubbing the strands of the quipu between his fingers. Knots, huh. Amelie's thoughts bouncing off of him, his off of her, until everything is all about bridges and knots. "This is Amelie's quipu – the one I made for her. I was maybe – thirteen, fourteen at most? I carried it to her Beach and she wore it ever since."

"Incredible," Deadman murmurs. "We had no idea, we thought she made it for herself, or… that it was some other kind of totem. I didn't know you made it. Nor that you now had it."

"When Lou came back, she was holding it. Brought it back from the Beach," Sam says, looking at her, in Deadman's arms. She's already reaching for the two pieces of jewellery – one woven with Bridget's DNA, and the other… "I don't know how I made this," Sam says, lifting the original quipu. "But I know I did. I made this."

Deadman's brows arch at that. "Well then," he says. "Not something I considered, but… jewellery making then?"

"I don't know," Sam says, turning the quipu in his hand. "But maybe."


 

It takes a while for the printer to finish the greenhouse – it is, after the garage, the biggest room in the shelter file, and so it takes a good long while to print, nearly four hours in total. During that time Sam looks into jewellery making, while Deadman plays with Lou on the floor, having spread a blanket over it. While she lays there, on her back, he waves her toys over her head, seemingly content with just that. Sam looks between them and his phone and then it dawns on him.

"Don't you have work to do in the Capital, Deadman?" he asks. "Where are your cuffs, anyway?"

The man on the floor looks up, a little startled and then guilty. "Well, I have been working long hours nonstop for years, I think I earned some time off," he says defensively. "Why, do you not want me here?"

"I'm just – aren't you getting bored, hanging around here?"

"No, never," the man says, this time resolute, and looks down at Lou. "There's no other place I would rather be, Sam, I promise you that."

Sam tilts his head to the side, disbelieving.

"I don't have quite the itch to get moving you do, Sam," Deadman says, rueful. "I am perfectly happy sitting around doing nothing. Don't worry, I am in no way bored here. How could I be, with you and Lou here?"

"Uhhuh," Sam answers, a little dubious. "It's just seems you were always getting around, digging into things, working on stuff. I just – thought you'd want to be doing more, with the UCA up and running and everything."

"Well, like I said – it's not the same, without you there. You and little Lou," Deadman mutters and looks down at Lou, who is straining to reach the toy dinosaur he's holding. "I suppose you're not the only one who learned to prioritise different things – we have all changed in these past few months. And Capital Knot, Bridges itself seems… different now."

Sam frowns and puts the phone away. "Different how?"

"Lockne returned to Mountain Knot, and Heartman used his last jump with Fragile to return to his home in the mountains," Deadman says. "And with Miss Fragile making her base near Lake Knot, there's just… no one there anymore. No one I trust, anyway."

Sam hesitates and then slides down from the couch, to sit on the floor with them. "Right," he says, awkward, not sure what to say.

"I didn't care much, before," Deadman muses. "I was happy with my work at Bridges, attending to the dead and then to the living – then to the ones in between, you and Lou… I was just happy to have something to do with my time, among people who didn't much care about… about this," he motions to his head, to the scar. "Never mind the interesting research. It was enough to be working, and accepted, I thought. And it was, at the time. But then I got to know you, and through you I and the members of previous expeditions came into contact with each other more… and there was a true sense of camaraderie. When you left, it started… fading somewhat."

Sam shifts where he sits, his throat feeling suddenly tight. He looks down for the lack of anything better to do, at Lou, who is trying to turn to her stomach, wiggling back and forth where she lies. Working on those core muscles.

"Well. With the proper establishment come proper rules, laws, regulations," Deadman says. "That included things like schedules, work hours, mandatory holidays. And it turns out I had quite a few days saved up, having never actually taken a holiday. And so here I am."

"Here you are," Sam agrees, propping one knee up and leaning his elbow on it. Lou makes a frustrated noise, huffing and puffing with the effort, and Sam reaches over to help her just a little bit, so that she rolls over. Immediately, she starts wiggling towards Deadman, who is holding her toys unintentionally hostage.

"I hope you do not mind," Deadman says, looking over her at Sam. "I know I showed up rather out of the blue, but – couldn't risk sending a message, in case I was monitored."

"It's fine," Sam says gruffly and shakes his head. "I got the space. Just – not good at this hosting guests business."

"I have nothing to complain about, so far," Deadman promises to him and then looks down at Lou. "Oh, was I keeping Raptor from you, little Lou? I am dreadfully sorry, here you are…"

Sam leans his chin on his arm, watching them play. The sight of Lou grinning toothless at Deadman, who gives an utterly besotted look back does funny things to his gut. Feels a bit like he's about to throw up again, or something. Fucking chiralium scrubbers.

"It's a bit like…" Deadman murmurs and smiles crookedly. "I do feel a bit guilty. Coming here, seeing Lou and you and spending time with you, it's stolen time, of course. But for a while I can pretend to have a family. Isn't that something?"

Sam grimaces, curling his fingers into a fist and looking down. Deadman glances at him and then looks away, the smile fading, and the air between them turning awkward. It takes a while before either of them says anything.

"Apologies," Deadman says, downcast. "That was too forward of me."

Sam shakes his head, looking away. He feels – stupid, like he's trying to remember something lost to the timefall, to the chiralium. Always so fucking slow on the uptake, but – "Pretend," Sam mutters.

Deadman shifts where he sits. "I told you, about how I was made – it's highly unlikely I will ever have such connections to anyone. No birth family and no chosen one, either – not to sound melodramatic, but who in their right mind would choose me? Not that I could even have children, if I wanted to," he shakes his head, looking at Lou wistfully. "Fertility wasn't exactly a priority, when they decided to create a man out of nothing. So I will have to take what I can, however false."

Sam looks up at him. "The fuck about this seems false to you?" he asks. "You're here, aren't you? In the fucking flesh."

That brings the man up short, and he looks up from the baby between them, who is looking back from one to the other as she chews on her toy. "Well," Deadman says and then clears his throat. "I suppose? Yes, I am."

Lou coos quietly in the ensuing silence – and then looks up as the shelter system informs them that, "Construction complete; a greenhouse has been added to the shelter."

Sam hesitates, glancing at Deadman, and then gets his feet under him, picking Lou up from the floor before standing up. "Let's have a look at it, then," Sam mutters and takes Lou's hand in his, rubbing her little fingers distractedly. "Who knows, maybe one day we can grow our own blueberries, wouldn't that be something?"

There's nothing in the greenhouse yet, of course – it's just a big room, really, but it has a whole bunch of leads for water, and the lighting in the place is intense, with UV panels on not just the ceiling, but the walls too. Sam's looked into the print files for the hydroponic and aeroponic arrays, and those tend to come with their own lighting – whatever will grow here, it definitely wouldn't be lacking sunlight.

"What are you intending to grow here?" Deadman asks, following them.

"I got some seeds and saplings from the Elder – haven't looked them over yet, but they should be edible," Sam says and shrugs. "So, whatever's in there, to start with."

"Let me have a look," Deadman says. "Where are they – in the store room?"

He heads off to find them, while Sam accesses the room's systems, checking them over. The place comes with its own air conditioning, and the plumbing system is separate from the main shelter – there's even a water tank, just for this room, probably so that it wouldn't tax the rest of the place. Which reminds Sam, "Should see if I can print out some PCCs, get the solar array and a water tower up and running."

Lou coos in agreement, even while squinting in the room. It's a lot of light, so he carries her back to the living room, laying her back on the blanket and giving her all her toys.

Deadman comes in, carrying the container of seeds and saplings – he's already opened it. "It's not a half bad selection, from what I can tell. Not that I have ever grown much of anything, mind you, but you can't go wrong with fruits and vegetables."

"What's in there, then?" Sam asks, and Deadman sets the container on the couch.

It's a whole thing, really. There's something like a dozen little seed packages, all carefully sealed with instructions written behind them, and then there are little baggies with living plants inside. And they're like no plants you can find outside anymore, these look vibrant, lively, and like timefall has never touched them.

"Let's see. Cherry tomatoes, good, peppers, green beans, very nice indeed, a nice basil…" Deadman murmurs. "These look like they can go right into the systems – yes, it says right here, ready for planting.

Sam shifts where he sits, scowling at the plants as Deadman goes over them, reading their labels and setting them down. Deadman notices of course and stops there, setting another baggy with another plant down. "What is it?"

"I don't – I don't know what half of those things are," Sam says, uncomfortable, shifting where he sits.

"You – don't. Ah. I suppose you haven't eaten fresh food in a while," Deadman comments. "It's rare, outside the cities. What do you usually eat?"

Sam looks away, swallowing. "Just nutrient bars, mostly. And cryptobiotes… and beer."

"I see," Deadman says, eyeing him and then humming. "Well, tomato is a sort of red berry, very commonly eaten – perhaps you've used ketchup, I believe it is still a common condiment in all standard food printers? That is ordinarily made from tomatoes, and I understand the synthetic version tastes about the same. Bell pepper is a fruit, hollow on the inside, rich in vitamins…"

Sam listens, some of his humiliation fading as Deadman explains the plants he knows of – which he knows because he's eaten them, back in Capital Knot, where fresh food isn't so rare. There are several massive greenhouses in the city, providing the population with stuff like that. Outside though… yeah.

Sam takes one of the bell pepper saplings in hand, eyeing it through its plastic bag. It looks a little lopsided and sad. "I guess I gotta print a unit to plant these in, then," he says. "The Elder recommended me a couple."

"Let's see, then," Deadman says.

Between them – and Lou, who is no help, really, but definitely has the spirit – they figure that one hydroponic unit is easily enough to cover the plants Sam has, so far anyway. Deadman does most of the set up, figuring what lead goes where and how to monitor the water flow – before teaching Sam the same, showing how much nutrient went into the feeds and where to insert it. "The water seems to circulate in the system," he explains. "And will automatically top off from the main shelter, once it runs low. The system will also send a warning once it runs out of nutrients, so keep an eye on that."

Sam nods – the Elder had told as much, but the reminder is appreciated. "Thanks," he says, eyeing the rack. It barely takes one tenth of the available space in the greenhouse, and even then the plants the Elder had given him don't cover the whole rack. But there's plants, and they might even begin growing, so… yeah.

"Let's have a look at those seeds," Deadman says, sounding satisfied. "See how we can go about the germinating process –"

Lou lets out a discontented noise then, squirming a little in Sam's arms. Sam looks down at her and sighs – he knows that particular type of straining she's doing. And there's the smell.

"Guess that has to wait. Number two on the way," Sam says with a snort and turns to take Lou to the bathroom… and then hesitates, glancing at Deadman. "Come on," he says, nodding him to follow. "Time you learn how to change her diaper."

"Er," Deadman says, holding the seed packets like a shield. "I don't suppose I actually need to –"

"Come on, Deadman," Sam says, and with a huff the man sets the seeds down and follows.

Really, there's no bonding like bonding over a mess a month old baby can make. Which reminds Sam, "It's been a month," he says, while Deadman makes faces at the used diaper. "A month since I took her out of the pod. She's one month old now."

"Ah," Deadman says, and quickly throws the diaper in the disposal, which would recycle it into base materials. He shakes his hand, like that will get rid of the germs. "Happy one month to Lou, then. Many happy returns. Maybe by next month she can learn to make less of a mess."

"She's a baby, Deadman. Babies are messy," Sam says, playing with Lou's feet to keep her from getting cranky. Getting changed is not her favourite thing, especially when it happens without following bath – already she's looking hopefully towards the shower. Though actually… the greenhouse isn't the only recent addition into the shelter, after all. "Maybe I should give her a bath," Sam murmurs, narrowing his eyes consideringly. "Test out that tub room, see how it came out."

"In that case, I will happily leave you to it," Deadman says quickly, moving to back away.

Sam glances at him and coughs. "There's a reason why it's in its own room," he points out, and picks Lou up, pressing a kiss to her cheek before heading to the door leading from the normal bathroom to the hot tub room. Though, really, it's more of a pool room. Deadman arches his brows with surprise and Sam shrugs. "It seemed simpler this way."

Most of the floor space in the hot tub room is taken by the pool of heated, mineral-infused water, and the walls and the ceiling around it are all chiralgraphic, which with a press of a button Sam can turn it into any scenery he wants. Since it was the one luxury Sam wanted for himself, he figured… might as well go all out.

Deadman blinks at the room and then looks at him, uncertain. Sam shrugs and looks away. "Like I said. There's space. If you – want to."

The man hesitates, shifting his weight from one foot to another and then says. "Some – some other time, maybe," he says then, in a rush. "Yes, some other time. You two enjoy your bath, I will – I will see about those seeds in the meantime, see what I can figure out. Yes –"

That said, he all but flees from the bathroom, leaving Sam blinking after him. Lou whines quietly and looks up at him, putting a finger in her mouth. She looks uncertain, and so is he, really. "I don't know, Lou," Sam says. "Maybe it's a medical thing, who knows."

Still, he… he isn't sure what he expected. Something.

"Whatever," Sam says and shakes his head, lifting Lou up higher and kissing her cheek again. "How about it, baby? A hot bath – our very own version of a hot spring. Should be great, yeah?"

Lou looks after Deadman and makes an uncertain noise, but the lure of bath is undeniable. With a smile Sam goes about getting rid of his clothes. At least someone here is easy to please, he thinks, and after a quick shower carries her to the hot bath.

It's just as good as he had hoped, and so much more. The water goes only up to his chest, he didn't really care for anything deeper and that, and there's a shallow spot where Lou can sit if she wants to. Of course she doesn't want to, but maybe one day. "Thank god for chiral printing technology," Sam groans, holding Lou up while she kicks up a storm of excited splashes.

Sam changes the chiralgraphics into a scene of the snowy mountains, and Lou claps her hands happily in approval. Smiling, Sam leans back against the side of the bath, and tries to ignore the empty space in the shallow pool.

Chapter Text

There's still that itch to get moving, but it's… easier to ignore now, somehow. Sam can just go to the greenhouse and look at the plants, and it's a little easier, and if it gets too bad he can sit down with his phone and look into the whole jewellery making thing. And though it looks like he's lost his affinity for that kind of delicate tinkering, however he did it way back when… there's something there, something that sparks something inside him.

Something about knots and strings of the quipu, that keeps him coming back.

Deadman in the meantime does mostly nothing, it seems at first. He sits with Lou or plays with her – even learns to feed her, which leaves Sam more and more at loose ends, but it's not so bad now. He's on his phone a lot too, at first – before eventually wandering over of Sam's shelter terminal to use that instead. Whatever he does there, Sam doesn't look too deeply into – Deadman is being all secretive, saying, "It is a surprise," and shooing him off, and, well… Sam trusts him.

Between them, they can sit around in the living room, quiet for hours on end, with only Lou making noises when she's awake and with nothing but silence when she isn't. Sometimes there's music, sometimes there isn't. And if Sam has to walk around the shelter a few dozen times a day to settle that restless itch, or drop down for crouches or push-ups or whatever, well… then that's what it takes.

"I believe you need an exercise setup," Deadman comments once, watching him doing entirely unsatisfying squats. "You need weights, Sam."

"What are you talking about?" Sam asks, while wondering if it would feel more like a strain if he went from a crouch directly to a jump.

"People exercise, Sam, indoors, to keep their bodies healthy. It's very commonplace and is usually done with exercise equipment, weights and the like," Deadman explains, not even blinking at his lack of knowledge anymore. "Here, see?" he pulls up some images, and Sam pauses to look. It shows people lifting flat disks stuck on a bar and stuff like that.

"That seems kinda… pointless," Sam comments, uneasy.

"The point is to build up muscle and burn fat," Deadman says and chuckles. "Not that I would know, obviously. But you might benefit from at least a barbell and set of weights. What do you think? We have the materials to print them – and can always recycle them if they won't do it for you."

Sam frowns and then steps forward to take a closer look. "And it's just for… for lifting?" he asks. "No other use?"

"I suppose you could use it as an improvised weapon, but generally no – though I understand there are many different ways to lift," Deadman says, and then they spend a while looking up clips and tutorials on how to use a barbell, until Lou wakes up cranky and in need of some food. Sam goes to pick her up, still thinking about it.

It feels weirdly… needy, to get something like that, just because he's feeling the itch to get moving. Like he's an addict looking for a fix, except his isn't oxytocin, it's… whatever this is.

"Sam," Deadman says, somehow picking up on that unease. "This is healthy. Even commendable. It happens with many people who exercise – it's what the human body is for! We evolved to run, and you've been running nearly non-stop for ten years, with a great deal of weight on you too, haven't you? Of course your body would get used to it, even grow to like it. There's nothing to be ashamed of."

 Sam shifts his weight, while on his arm Lou clutches onto the baby bottle, trying to hold it herself as she drinks. She's not strong enough yet for that, but damn if she doesn't try. "Alright," he says and coughs. "Print it then. How much material does it use?"

"Almost all of the metal we have left," Deadman explains. "But like I said, in a pinch it can be recycled back into materials."

Sam nods, and Deadman prints the thing, before regaling him with a long winded explanation of all the hormonal things that made Sam feel the way he was feeling. It goes completely over Sam's head for the most part, and he probably won't remember a thing of it in a couple of days, but it does make him feel a bit better.

Of course later it turns out that they don't have nearly enough metal to make enough weights for Sam. At a minimum he's used to carrying up to 120kg, and they don't have enough metal to get even that many weights, never mind going higher. Still. It's definitely more satisfying squatting with that weight than without it.

Deadman and Lou watch from the side as Sam figures the thing out and finally feels his stupid fucking body settle, and as he finishes a rep of twenty with the weight, they clap enthusiastically. That's kind of nice too.


 

Sam writes to the Chiral Artist, about the creation of… something. Him being who he is, he's bound to slap some chiralium into whatever he makes, and though Bridges and Deadman himself know more than plenty of that, they've been concentrating onto different things. The Chiral Artist just makes things with chiralium for the hell of it, from what Sam knows.

Her reply is a little terse – she doesn't know who Relief is, after all – directing Sam to her site on the network, where she has a bunch of tutorials for manipulation and forging of things out of chiralium. Sam spends some time perusing the tutorials. Most of her stuff is about combining chiralium with metals and alloys, to add them… not exactly better qualities, just aesthetics. So that's not very helpful, but it does show him how it's done.

It's not precisely what he's after. Not that he knows what he's after yet, just… something.

In the meantime, Deadman finishes what he was making and while Sam is giving Lou a quick – and in her opinion unpleasant – wash in the bathroom sink, he prints it out.

"Tadaah!" the man says with a flourish, presenting Sam with a… mask.

Sam looks at it and then at him, frowning. Though it's not particularly skeletal in design and looks more like fabric than metal, it's still a sort of half mask that fits over the jaw and nose. That alone makes Sam think of Higgs.

"It's a filter mask," Deadman explains earnestly. "It took me a while to calibrate the flirters just so that they block out the finest particulates – such as fine chiralium in the air. Of course, an oxygen mask, such as the one you used in the mountains, will do the same thing, but I thought this would be much more comfortable to wear, and it leaves your eyes unblocked. This is also cheaper to print, and can be scaled according to the user's size – I can print one out even for our little one, and it should fit without issues."

Sam accepts the mask slowly, looking at it while Lou tries to reach for the straps and tug it to her. It's light, and a bit elastic at the edges – and there's a band that apparently goes around the ears. "A filter," he says. "For chiralium."

"Such masks have been available for a while, of course, but they tended to be bulky and heavy. This should be more easy to use with less of a hassle," Deadman says. "You will have to change filters, or the mask entirely, after 48 hours of use, though, but…"

Sam looks at him, lowering the mask so that Lou can grab it. She squeals excitedly and immediately begins waving it around, swinging it by its straps. It's soft and light enough that it's not gonna risk injuring her, so Sam lets her.

Deadman shifts uncomfortably. "You take in the most chiralium through your breathing, you see," he explains, looking a bit like he doesn't know what to do with his hands. "With the Weather Station and other similar locations on the network, we know now that there isn't truly a place where there is no chiralium in the atmosphere at all – it clings to all forms of water and moisture, even gaseous forms. Though long studies on the effects of such small sum of exposure over long periods of time are difficult to conduct, I feel it's rather obvious that… people might want to avoid –"

Sam hugs him. He's not even sure why, exactly, mostly to just shut him up, and partially because his throat feels like it's got a noose around it and he can't think of what to say. Deadman freezes for a moment and then quickly hugs him back – though carefully. Lou's right between them.

"You can colour it however you like, of course," Deadman says against his shoulder.

"Right," Sam says, squeezing the fabric of the man's coat in his fingers. "Right."

Between them, Lou lets out a muffled noise, and they separate a little to look down at her. She's clapping her little hands, the mask hanging off her arm, and she looks utterly delighted by the situation. Sam brushes his fingers over her head, smiling and then looks at Deadman.

Deadman smiles back.


 

The mask is what gives Sam the idea. Lou plays around with it until she gets bored, by which time Sam can actually examine it at some length. The fabric of it is synthetic and elastic, with an outer coating of what looks like faux leather – and at each side, just beside the nose, there is the filter patch, which is easily removable. It really seems more easy and comfortable to use than your usual filters – testing it out, Sam finds it fits the shape of his face easily, and within a couple minutes he forgets it's there at all.

It would make a lot of porters' lives a lot better in the long run. Never mind a lot of other people, too, with how many are wandering outside the shelter of cities these days, with no care or maybe no knowledge what time outside might do to them. Sam's at the end of his chiralium detox now, and he knows it won't actually fix anything in him. His tongue might no longer be purplish grey, but those memories he lost, they won't come back.

But maybe it could keep other people from getting to that point.

"Deadman," Sam calls to the man, who is checking the news by the terminal. "If I use my Q-pid to hook up the shelter to the network, will Die-Hardman know it was me?"

Deadman looks up sharply and hums. "Well… hm. It might seem a bit suspicious, I grant. The other Q-pid carriers are being monitored, so everyone knows where they are at all times and what they are doing – you are the only one unaccounted for. If you hook up the shelter, then the natural assumption is that it was you who did it."

Shit.

"Are you thinking of finally joining the network?" Deadman asks, turning around in his chair to look at him worriedly.

Sam swings the mask by the strap. "You can only publish things on the network with verified Q-pid connection, right?" he asks. "And this thing can be printed, it isn't handmade. So…"

"Ah, I see," Deadman muses. "Well, I could look into whether any of the others are anytime near and put in an order for you, if you would like? It is pretty commonplace now, private shelters and communities requesting Q-pid connection, so it wouldn't be so strange."

Sam lets the mask hang from his finger, for Lou to bat at. "Yeah, okay. That works."

Deadman nods, but doesn't turn to the terminal. "Are you certain?" he asks then. "It might risk your privacy here."

"Yeah, I'm… I'm sure. It's okay," Sam says. "So as long as my name never comes up."

"I'll make sure it doesn't."

While Deadman puts in the request, Sam examines the mask a little longer and then, thoughtful, takes out the quipu. Lou reaches for it immediately, and Sam lets her play with the strands of it, thinking. There's nothing in common there, between the mask and the quipu, and yet…

Something for other porters. That's what he'd like to do, not jewellery, who even wants or needs jewellery these days – things were different when he made Amelie that quipu. Stuff like this mask, except he's not nearly smart or knowledgeable enough to make a mask like this. He can do something though, which he really should've realised sooner.

He can make BT-detaining strands, by adding his blood into them.

Sam tugs at the synthetic fabric again, watching the fibres stretch, a thought forming in his head slowly.

"Hey," Sam says and looks up, taking the quipu from Lou's hands and putting it away, much to her dismay. "Do you think you could mind Lou for me for a while? I have someone I've been meaning to visit. Could test your mask out while at it."

Deadman looks up sharply. "What – stay here, with her, without you?"

Sam shrugs. "You know the shelter's systems better than I do by now," he snorts. "And you can take care of her. I know you can." Even if the guy doesn't like diaper duty, he can do it now.

"Sam," Deadman says, looking between honoured and uncomfortable. "While I am flattered by your trust in me – are you certain?"

"Are you going to do something to her, kidnap her, take her to Bridges?"

"What – of course not! Never!"

Sam smiles. "There you have it," he says and stands up, tucking the mask into his pocket and walking over to the guy. Deadman turns his chair to face him, but doesn't get up as Sam eases Lou out of her harness and into his arms. "It shouldn't be long, a day trip, back before midnight," Sam says, stroking a hand over Lou's head as she crawls up Deadman's body and to the enticing glint of his quipu. "You've taken care of her before without me."

"Back then she was in a pod, it was easier," Deadman says, while quickly putting his hands on Lou to support her. He gives the baby that besotted, helpless look that Sam knows pretty well, and then looks up to him. "I – are you sure?"

"Yeah," Sam says, and bends down to kiss Lou's head. "I trust you."


 

Setting out without Lou, with Deadman and her waving him goodbye from the garage, is both harder and easier than Sam thought it would. Easier, by far, than leaving her at the Craftsman's had been – with Deadman Sam knows she'll be alright, at least. But still, the moment Sam eases the truck out he realises how much he would've preferred to stay in. It's not just a mostly empty shelter now, after all. It's home.

But, once he's set out, it's also a relief in its own right. To get out, to see something other than walls – to be moving. The barbell took off the edge of the stillness, but it's nothing compared to the real thing, to being able to just go. How people can spend their entire lives indoors, Sam has no idea.

Something settles in his belly, excited and terrified and regretful all at once, as Sam guns down the hill and then to the path Fragile had marked with chiralgrams for her people – the one that went around the BT zone. It's longer, but faster, without the BTs constantly shorting the truck's system and forcing him to get out to deal with them, and by using the path Sam makes it to the main road in less than an hour. Not bad, really.

From there, it's about four hours to where he's heading, down the road and southward. There's new structures by the road he hadn't seen before – a watch tower, a couple more timefall shelters, a post box, never mind a whole bunch of supportive chiralgrams. There's no other trucks on the road, but Sam does pass by a porter sitting in a shelter, with a trike parked right under the shelter's protective plates. They send likes to each other in passing, and Sam continues on without stopping.

The rain lets up for a while, and then starts again as he comes closer to his destination, and then veers off the road. There's a new path there too, beaten into the rocky terrain by feet and wheels, and it looks like some lunatics have even been driving down the rocky hillside towards the shelter down there. Sam considers doing the same and then decides he'd rather walk a bit, and gets out of his truck to stretch his legs.

He also takes a moment to peek over the edge of the rocky cliffs and at the great waterfall there. "Let's take a poto," he mutters to himself, smiling, and takes pictures for Lou before finally heading down.

The narrow path to the Cosplayer's shelter is full of chiralgrams, warming people not to drive their trucks there. Sam gives them all likes, snorting all the while. So someone else had made that mistake, huh?

The shelter system registers Relief's ID, and as Sam drops down to the level of the shelter entrance, there's a chiralgram there to greet him. "Oh, guests, I love guests! Hello, I don't think I've seen you before – I'm the Cosplayer, nice to meetcha!"

Sam smiles and takes off the mask he's been wearing. "Hi, Cosplayer," he says with a little wave.

"Ohmigosh, Sam! Hi, I didn't recognize you – you got a new ID? That's great – come on in, I'll unlock the front for you! Leave you suit up front," the Cosplayer says enthusiastically, and immediately the door clunks open. Sam waves at her chiralgram and then heads inside.

Her place is, as always, a complete mess. She's got mannequins, boxes and boxes full of bits and pieces of fabric every which way – and as per usual, the front hall is stacked high with empty beer kegs. The Cosplayer herself hurries to welcome him, waving at him, keeping an arm's length distance.

"It's been a while, Sam! How have you been – where have you been? I've seen so many new porters lately, but not you, and there hasn't been a word, and your ID is offline –"

It's a while before Sam gets a word in edgewise, saying, "I've been good, set out on my own, stopped being a porter, made a shelter – yeah, I made a shelter – sure, you can have the ID –"

"Aw, man, that's so great! I mean, it was great that you were a porter, you got all those other people going and business has been booming too, it's awesome, but it's great that you've settled down! You always seemed so tired – want a drink? Toast to your new shelter!"

"No, thanks, I gotta drive back before tonight," Sam says while looking around. "MC is not here?"

"He's gone to South Knot – a porter took him just this morning. He's going to have a comedy show there, first time in… god knows how long. He was very excited – though he's gonna be sad he missed you," the Cosplayer says and offers him a can of Timefall Porter. "Come on, one beer, one hour," she says. "You're not leaving so soon, are you? You could have one, wait it out and then head back."

Sam hesitates and then sighs. "What the hell – one beer," he says. "Just one."

"Gotcha," she says, and grabs him a Timefall Porter. "To the glory and longevity of your shelter, may timefall never wear it down!"

Sam snorts and snaps the can open. "Yours too," he agrees, and they clink their cans together, before taking a seat. "Speaking of which – yours is in a ditch. Doesn't this place flood?"

"Got a drainage channel, leading down to the basin," the Cosplayer shrugs. "It's a bit of a hassle, but I'd rather stick to my ditch than have to deal with MULEs, you know? I'm a lover, not a fighter, and all that. How about you, where's your shelter at then? Oh, I bet it's somewhere nice…"

They talk about shelters a bit, the Cosplayer bemoaning the lack of space but saying she definitely prefers the privacy. "Sure, porters come around more now, and I like it, but I'm still removed enough that no one bothers me, you get me?"

"I set my place up right above a BT zone, so yeah, I get you," Sam agrees.

"You're a crazy man, but to each his own, I guess," she says and drains the rest of her can in a single go. "So, I'm feeling this isn't just a social visit, you don't really do those, right? What's up?"

Sam sips his beer, thinking how to put it. "First, I know a guy who's looking for people to talk to about this…" he motions around them. "Kind of stuff. Calls himself the Ludens Fan, asked me if I knew anyone like him, and, ah. Well. I know you. Didn't give him your ID, but if you want to send him a message…"

"Ludens Fan, huh?" the Cosplayer asks, humming. "You know, I did make a Ludens Cosplay once? It was bitch to make, but damn, so cool too, that armour? Hell yeah. I'll send the guy a message, sure thing. Maybe get a little convention going, who knows. The Ludens Fan, that's his callsign?"

"Yeah," Sam says, having no idea what she's even saying, but sure. "He lives back east, near the Distribution Center West of Capital Knot."

"Gotcha," the Cosplayer says, punching the ID into her system. "So, that was the first thing – what was the other? There was another, right?"

"Yeah," Sam says. "I've hauled a lot of clothing for you, stuff that's not printable, and, uh… how do you make those? How do you make fabric?"

The Cosplayer's brows arch and then she grins. "Thinking of making a costume of your own, Sam?"

Sam glances at the one not far from them, an elaborate dress sort of thing on a busty mannequin. "Something like it," he agrees.

"That's awesome," the Cosplayer says, grabbing another can of beer for herself and standing up. "Come on, lemme show you my sewing room. You're in for a lesson of your life, mister."


 

Sam comes away from the Cosplayer's place with a handful of containers and a couple of new machines in his truck and a bit of a headache. She also gave him a case of Timefall Porter to take away with him, saying that, "Since I'm so close to Timefall Farm here, I get it cheaper than anyone else really," which is probably fair.

Sam can't wait to get back. It was just a short trip, and he's pretty sure things are okay back that the shelter. There's no message from Deadman, so he assumes everything's gone well for them, but… the longer he's been away, the more anxious he's gotten to get back. It's a bit of a novel thing, to have something to go back to. And it's an empty feeling, being in the truck by himself, without Lou there squealing at him to go fast. Boosting just isn't the same without her.

Sam boosts anyway, just to get there that much faster.

It's still nearly pitch black when he gets back, and it's raining again, a thin cold mist that makes the air foggy. Sam's wearing the mask again, and of course the truck's air-conditioning filters chiralium out, but… it really makes him think of all the times he's moved through mist just like this without caring about how the moisture clung to him, how it got into his breath.

So many years without giving a shit about what the crap was doing to him, and here he is, caring and dealing with the results.

Sam unlocks the shelter with his phone and drives straight into the garage, before putting the air conditioning on blast to hopefully clean the truck quicker. He also strips out of his outer suit right there and chucks it into the recycling – he'll print a new one, once the materials have been processed.

Deadman is half asleep on the couch, Lou snoozing away on his chest. "Ah, there you are," he says quietly. "I heard you come in, but with the little one…"

"It's okay," Sam says, glancing over Lou. She's sucking on her thumb and looking peaceful, he wouldn't have wanted to shift her either. "I'll hop in the shower real quick and then take her off your hands."

"Mmm, take your time," Deadman says and strokes his hand over Lou's back. "I'm in no hurry to move, myself. She's been cranky all day without you."

"Ah. But you handled it, right?" Sam asks.

"I handled it," Deadman agrees, sounding proud.

Sam is quick about his shower, putting everything he's wearing into the washer while he's at it – which might be taking things too far, but… whatever. He's got other sets of clothes which he can now wear, which he hasn't been using much. Once he's done scrubbing himself clean and has had the dryer blow him dry, he heads to the living room to grab a set of clothes.

Deadman makes a noise like he's choking.

"What?" Sam asks, going to the dresser.

"Nothing," the man says, quickly, and looks at Lou. "Indigestion, maybe."

Sam shakes his head and then pulls on some of the clothes he got from the Artificer – a fresh set of underwear, black slacks soft with use, and a pale grey cardigan, which feels warm to the touch and seems a bit like a luxury, after years spent wearing nothing but timefall-proof stuff. It feels – nice, even though the sleeves are way too long for him. The Craftsman's old clothing – the guy was a bit taller than him, so of course it would be too long.

Sam turns to Deadman, who is sitting up slowly, both hands on Lou to keep her comfy and secure against his chest. "Your bruises are fading."

"Huh?" Sam asks, going to them.

"The bruises from your backpack straps. They're almost gone."

Sam blinks and then tugs at the loose collar of the cardigan, to look at his shoulder. He's right – the perpetual redness there is almost invisible now. "Huh," he says again and then sits down beside Deadman, tucking the soft cloth back over his shoulder. "Well, I haven't been carrying a backpack in a while. Was bound to happen."

"Hm, I suppose so, yes," Deadman says, somehow strange, and then begins awkwardly and oh so carefully shifting Lou over. "Here, I figure you'll want to hold her…"

Sam really does. He pulls their baby girl to his chest eagerly, where she settles without waking up, letting out content little snuffling noises against his chest. A little nostalgic, Sam opens the cardigan front enough to get her to bare skin, and that's – that's nice too.

"Welcome home, Sam," Deadman says, watching him.

"Good to be back," Sam agrees, leaning against the man's shoulder, and pressing a gentle kiss on Lou's head. "Good to be home."

Chapter Text

"… thing is, as a repatriate you recover your blood at a rate unprecedented for more regular humans. Some DOOMS sufferers share this, but you are especially resilient to blood loss," Deadman says, while fitting the newly made cuff around Sam's arm, tightening it on. "We noticed it early on, of course – that with simple rest you can recover from injuries that would be permanent to most people. I calculated that you could safely lose up to 500 millilitres of blood a day and suffer no adverse effects. That is why we dared to collect it so often, you see."

"Yeah, I remember," Sam mutters. He hadn't realised he recovers from it that fast – honestly, he never felt the loss in the morning, after the bleeding was done. When he got shot and injured and lost blood like that, sure, but not the nightly blood collections. Those just… happened somewhere in the background.

"I suppose you do," Deadman says, smiling, and then reaches for the IV line. "Well, in either case, it should still be safe for you to fill up a one 500 millilitre bag a day, if you so choose – granted, if you get a full night's rest after. We regularly collected your blood the moment you first entered REM sleep, that gave you the rest of the night to recover – so if you decide to make this a habit, I suggest you do it before going to bed. Ready?"

Sam hums with a nod and winces a little as he feels the sting on his wrist. A moment later red travels down the IV line  and into the bag sitting at their feet. "I just want enough to test a few things," he says. "Making blood-infused strands and whatnot."

"Thinking of making those your outbound cargo, then?" Deadman asks, as they sit down to watch the blood bag fill.

"Maybe. Also thinking, like… clothing, or at least accessories, made of stuff infused with my blood. Might be BT-repellent, you know? They might not want to touch it," Sam says. "Should keep porters safe out there."

"It is an excellent idea, Sam," Deadman comments, folding his arms. "And it would give you a very valuable product to ship, certainly. But it will not keep your identity a secret – you're the only one with this quality to their blood."

"Yeah," Sam says uneasily. "But… could be worth it, to keep people safe."

"Feeling a little more secure in your own shelter, then?" Deadman asks and looks towards the bed, where Lou is lying on her back, playing idly with the odradek. "A little less like people might come and steal Lou away?"

Sam shrugs and gives him an awkward, sideways look. "Helps, not being alone in here."

"… ah," Deadman says.

At their feet the blood bag finishes filling up, and the cuff automatically cuts it off, with a little sting withdrawing the needle and spraying Sam's wrist with some sort of ointment, to close the wound instantly. Sam bends down to pick it up – it's warm. He's used to blood bags being cold.

Should be more than enough material to infuse some yarn, though, right?

"Listen, Sam," Deadman then says, looking uncomfortable. "I…"

Sam looks at him when he doesn't continue. The guy is just staring at his hands, looking uncomfortable. "What?" Sam asks.

"My work, in Capital, I – the break I have is long, but it isn't forever," Deadman says, giving him a sideways look. "I won't be here forever."

… right. Right, he… forgot about that.

Sam thinks of nothing at all for a moment and then stands up, weighing the blood bag in his hand. Should put it in the fridge, shouldn't he, keep it cool, keep it from spoiling. He's not sure how he wants to use it anyway, so he'd better store it right –

"Don't be like that, Sam," Deadman sighs, standing up. "I still have days, weeks even –"

"It's fine, Deadman," Sam says, irritated for a reason he can't quite name. "It's fine, it's whatever."

"Obviously it isn't," Deadman says, plain, and with a shake of his head Sam turns to head for the kitchen, to put the blood bag away. Deadman follows him. "Being here, with you, Sam, it's been a pleasure, it's been a privilege – and I would like to stay, I would, but – the work I do is important to me, and I believe in it."

"You said you didn't even like it there anymore," Sam mutters, despite himself, and shoves the blood bag into the fridge.

"Well, I don't. But all my research materials are there, my laboratories – all my work," Deadman says, frustrated. "And I would love to stay here, I would, but I have spent years on that work, it's important too."

"Right, right," Sam says, gripping the fridge door with one hand before shoving it shut. Why the hell is he so mad about this? "Got nothing to do with me –"

Deadman takes him by the shoulder, turning him around, and Sam ends with his back against the fridge – and with a jolt, everything sort of crashes down and goes very still. Sam looks down, unable to meet the man's eyes, while Deadman leans closer. "Of course it has something to do with you," Deadman says, earnest and weird, and too close for comfort. "Sam."

Just when Sam was starting to figure out how to feel comfortable with this all too.

"I dedicated my efforts to the UCA," Deadman says quietly. "Partially because their research was of great interest to me, but also because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I told you I was a coroner before, yes? It was about the only job I could get. No one wants to deal with the dead anymore, after all – and who is better to put to such an unseemly task but the dead man? I had to learn everything on my own, too, by automated teachers, and research, and trial and error."

Sam draws in a slow breath and releases it even slower.

"UCA and Bridges, they gave me something more," Deadman says, watching him. "Took me in and let me pursue research I actually enjoyed and was fascinated with, instead of banishing me in the cellar with the dead, again. I have to be grateful for that, and I am. And I still want to make a difference to those organisations… even if you don't believe in them."

Sam lowers his eyes, swallowing. "Fine," he mutters. "Made your point."

"Would be nice if I could separate myself into parts," Deadman laments. "Send my brain over there, so that my heart could stay here. That, I think, would be the optimal solution."

Sam snorts. "You're a fucking weirdo," he mutters and looks up. "It's fine, Deadman."

"We still have many days before I must engage a porter to take me," Deadman says, earnest. "I hope we can enjoy those days, as we have enjoyed these past days."

"Yes, yes, alright," Sam says and nudges his head to the side. "You mind moving, now?" he's still kinda pinned against the fridge, here.

Deadman seriously looks for a moment like he doesn't – but he steps back. "So, uh," he says and coughs. "Should check on little Lou," he says, and then, hesitant, moves back further, heading out of the kitchen.

Sam stays there for a moment, until his heart stops feeling like it's about to pound its way out of his chest. "Geez," he murmurs, running a hand over his face. "What the fuck."


 

The machines and materials the Cosplayer gave to Sam make the living room feel a little crowded. She printed the machines for him, of course, they weren't actually hers, just copies, but since Sam is kind of strapping for materials, he certainly didn't mind.

There's an automatic loom, her own invention – it's basically a printer, in how it's used, except not at all. Instead of raw materials, you insert string of yarn or whatever, and the thing then makes you customised fabric. It's how she makes materials for costumes – easier to control the thickness and strength of the result. It's also why her high-performance underwear is so popular.

The second is a knitting machine, same purpose, more handcrafted-looking quality, apparently. The Cosplayer didn't much use it herself, but hey, if one wants to make a scarf or whatever…

Then there is a sewing machine, which the Cosplayer gave Sam a quick tutorial on before giving him a list of resources on the network to look up. She had some tutorials she'd made herself, too.

And finally, the thing Sam was probably going to use first and probably the most – a spinner. That one the Cosplayer herself didn't actually have – she used printed yarn and string whenever making her own fabric, but then she wasn't thinking of spinning something into the yarn. Like blood.

"Seems straightforward," Deadman comments while they look over it. "Likely we could rig it up so that it spins together threads, some of which are infused with your blood, to form a single thicker thread."

"Yeah, that's the idea," Sam agrees, bouncing Lou on his knee as she plays with a ball of yarn. The Cosplayer had given him some string, yarn, even scraps of cloth, so he had something to start with, but… "It's gotta be that hematic infusion string, though, right – the one I use for my strands?"

"Likely so, everything else might simply be ruined by the blood," Deadman agrees, reading the manual. "Hm. I guess there's nothing to it but print some out and see."

So that's what they do, Deadman printing out a ball of mostly resin fibre string infused with small amounts of chiralium that takes blood without going hard or spoiling – it's what's used for the hematic rounds, too, to keep the blood in the rounds from drying and going useless. Between them – and Lou, who would really rather chuck the balls of yarn at the floor just for the enjoyment of watching them bounce – they set the machine up so that there's some strings going in, one of them the hematic infusion string, which is first soaked in Sam's blood.

The machine is a bit noisy, whirring and spinning as it goes, but it's fast too – in a couple of minutes, they have what amounts to… hematic yarn.

"Hm," Sam hums, amused, while Lou pats at the finished skein of red yarn. "I wonder if you could make a pair of gloves with this and slap a BT with them."

"I… don't see why not?" Deadman comments thoughtfully and looks at him. "Can you make gloves?"

"No," Sam snorts and then tilts his head. "I know someone who can, though."

That ends up being his very first outbound order – a set of four skeins of hematic yarn, to be taken to the Artificer, at the cost of 120 likes. It might take weeks or months before anyone would come to pick it up, but… it's still kind of cool, to post an order of his own.

It's not the only thing he makes, though. With the hematic string and yarn production down, Sam turns to the other machines, wondering. What piece of clothing would be the best, for a porter traversing through BT territory? They all wear timefall-proof clothing, of course, and he doubts he can do that just yet, especially not if he wants to actually make use of the hematic yarn. Timefall-proof clothing tends to come with a layer of plastic, after all, which would probably render the hematic aspect of the thing useless. So what…

It's the limitations of his own knowledge of how to work the thing that decides it, eventually. With Deadman reading the tutorials and giving him pointers, Sam punches in a design for a basic rectangle, feeding his yarn into the machine and then watching it churn out the finished material. A long piece of mostly dark red cloth, due to the yarn choices. It's rather fitting, if Sam says so himself.

"A scarf," Deadman deduces.

Sam shrugs. "Something to start with," Never mind the fact that he seriously could've used one, back in the mountains. "Could you watch Lou while I test it out?"

"By… test it out, you mean – "

"There is a BT zone right at the foot of this hill," Sam says and shrugs. "What a better way to figure out if it actually does anything than to test it out on the real thing?"

Deadman looks a little worried but then nods. "I suppose if anyone can... I'll watch Lou, certainly. Do be careful, Sam."

"Will do," Sam says and picks the scarf from the machine. "Shouldn't take long."

It's a bit risky, testing the thing, but he's done worse things, and Sam has his cord cutter and a couple of regular hematic weapons with him, just in case. And so, after kisses to Lou and check of his gear – and a brand new mask – he ventures into the BT zone with the intention of seeing what'll happen.

The scarf, while not perfect BT-deterrent by any means, does make the BT act differently from what he can tell. It will likely ruin the scarf in no time flat, but if he drapes it over himself, like a cape, or at least over his shoulders, like a shawl, then the BTs do not want to touch him. They try to, but there's that burning, sizzling effect his blood has on them, and they release him again, recoiling like they did from the EX grenades Bridges made from his various… substances.

Sam tests it a bit further, taking out a handful of BTs while he's at it, before making a quick check of the scarf. Looks like, as it is, it can't take more than an hour or two of the timefall before it would break apart completely.

"Some timefall-proof material might make it stronger," Sam mutters while laying the half destroyed scarf out. "Remember hauling stuff like that for people, timefall-proof fabrics, so they exist."

"They do. Chiralium-infused synthetic materials, mostly," Deadman says. "Not terribly pleasant to wear, I'm afraid, but might make it more enduring. Perhaps that way you could make anti-BT capes of some kind."

"Could be," Sam agrees, plucking at the already frayed fibres of the thing. He'd put it through a cleaner to get rid of any lingering chiralium, which definitely didn't do any favours to the thing either. "Those cases at Bridges, where I hung my suit to scrub them clean – I don't suppose I could print those out here?"

"You can, in fact," Deadman says. "But I already checked – you don't have enough materials for them. You need more special alloys, and chemicals."

"Guess I could put in an order then," Sam muses and rubs at his neck. "Right now I'm going to have a bath. Where's Lou?"

"On the floor there," Deadman says, motioning. He's spread out the blanket again, and Lou's lying on it on her belly, wiggling a little as she pats at D-Dog. "We were working on her core and leg strength."

"Oh really?" Sam asks, smiling at Lou as she giggles to herself. "How's it going?"

"She's got a hell of a kick, I tell you that," Deadman says and rubs at his nose. "Nearly gave me a nose bleed. Takes after her mother there, certainly."

Sam starts a bit at that and looks at him. "Her – stillmother?" he asks, uneasy.

"What? No, I meant you, of course," Deadman says and folds his arms. "You know, you carried her nearly for nine months, in the pod? Seems rather fitting, don't you think?"

Sam just stares at him, gobsmacked.

"Or – I suppose, gender and sex roles being what they are," Deadman comments. "The term father is socially considered more correct, but technically, considering the role you have played in Lou's life… mother seems far more apt, in your case."

Sam opens his mouth and then snaps it shut. He… hadn't really thought about it that way. Not that he'd ever thought of himself as Lou's father either. People have called Lou his daughter, sure, and he figures that at least is completely accurate at this point, but… he hadn't really realised there was supposed to be a corresponding title. He knew, intellectually, but he hadn't really… ever applied it to himself.

Lou was his daughter, and he was Lou's…

"Really," Sam murmurs, somewhere between embarrassed and enthralled. "Mother."

Deadman shrugs. "You'll find people hard-pressed to argue it, I think," he says, a little amused. "Those in the know, anyway."

"Right," Sam says and looks at him. "What does that make you – the father?"

Deadman sputters, and with a snort Sam goes to pick Lou up from the floor. "Hey, baby," he says, kissing the side of her head as she turns to him with a happy babble. "Wanna take a dip in the bath with me?"

She pats at his face with her little hands and then presses a clumsy baby kiss on his cheek. Sam grins, rocking her a little and looking at Deadman, who is eyeing them, looking like he's gotten knocked over the head. Sam arches his brows to him, and Deadman coughs, quickly gathering himself.

"Don't suppose you're joining us this time, either?" Sam asks, while Lou presses her cheek against his, little fingers tangling in his loose hair.

"I, uh…" Deadman fiddles with his hands, looking away. "Ahem."

Sam waits until he's sure nothing more's coming. "Is there a reason why not? And don't tell me it's propriety, because I know you don't give a shit."

"Well…" the man says, coughing. "There is that too – and really, I probably owe you an apology for that time, in your private room back at Mountain Knot – it was the best I could think at such a short notice –"

"Deadman," Sam says, and the man stumbles to a halt.

It's a while before he speaks, and when he does, it's with some difficulty. "You – know about my body, of course," Deadman says, motioning to his forehead, where the stitches have deformed the skin. "About how I was made, how I was kept alive when some organs began failing."

Sam blinks slowly. "So you got scars?"

"There is quite extensive scarring, yes," Deadman agrees and looks down. "All for a reason, of course, and that they exist at all is a testament to their necessity, but I know they can be unseemly to look at."

"Deadman, I'm covered in handprints," Sam says flatly. "You think I give a shit?"

"I am also not quite as well formed as you," Deadman points out.

"The fuck is that supposed to mean?" Sam asks, and Lou coos against his cheek, curling her fingers tighter. "Ow, Lou, what?"

"Perhaps you shouldn't be swearing quite as much around her," Deadman comments, still looking a little uncomfortable.

"Whatever," Sam says, untangling her fingers from his hair and beard and holding her against his chest instead. "Does the scarring or whatever mean you can't take hot water – is it, like, harmful?"

"Well, no," Deadman admits.

"Then I don't see the problem," Sam says, shrugging. "Unless it's like a mental thing, which is – fine, if it is. Just tell me, and I'll stop asking."

Deadman sighs at that, hanging his head. He's quiet for a moment, struggling with something internal. He doesn't say anything.

"Well, come or don't, it's up to you," Sam says. "I'm going ahead with Lou."

"I… " Deadman hesitates and shakes his head.

So, no go this time either?

Sam tries not to feel disappointed as he and Lou have a quick shower, as they usually do, before heading into the hot bath. There's a couple of floating toys there too – Deadman's suggestion – which bob on the surface of the mineral-infused water as Sam sinks down with a sigh. His trek to the BT zone wasn't even that long, but BTs always left him feeling cold to his core. And a hot bath was always appreciated. By some, anyway.

Lou isn't one to brood gloomily in a bath, of course, which serves as a great distraction. She's more into splashing around and making waves. Sam supports her under her belly while she goes for a little swim, squirming and kicking and splashing herself forward, towards her toys, shrieking happily once she catches the nearest one. "Well done, Lou," Sam grins, while carefully making sure she never gets under the water completely. "Can you get the other one?"

Lou damn well does. She's got one toy in each hand and is smashing them together to make more splashes, when Sam hears the shower going on in the other room. It really shouldn't make his heart skip a beat the way it does.

Moments later the door opens, and Deadman steps into the hot bath room. Sam does him the favour of not looking or staring – Lou does no such thing, letting out a happy shriek and going, "Daman, daman!" at him, trying to splash over to him.

"Yes, yes, alright," Deadman says with a defeated sigh, and peers into the water. "It is not very deep, is it? I don't know how to swim."

"It's shallow on the end there, and just chest high here – don't worry," Sam says and glances at him sideways. He can barely even see the scars, they're mostly like the one on the guy's forehead, not even particularly red, but – who's he to judge people on their weird hangups? "Hope the temp isn't too bad."

"It seems alright."

Deadman is slow getting into the water, awkward, sitting down quick enough to cause a splash. Lou likes it, of course she does, she likes everything that makes a mess and causes chaos. Sam grins, lifting her from the water a little, and then looks at Deadman more fully.

The guy looks a little embarrassed still, but he's there, and that's something. "Not so bad, huh?" Sam asks.

Deadman looks at him closely and finally relaxes. "Not so bad, no," he agrees, crossing his legs under the water and sighing. "Yes, I see now why you had it printed. It feels… quite nice."

Sam smiles, satisfied – and of course, that's when Lou squirms out of his arms and then has to be rescued as she slips, falls and goes completely underwater. It distracts them both for a moment, and of course she's utterly thrilled by this momentary underwater adventure and wants to do it again.

"You are a water hazard," Sam mutters to the girl, before moving to lean against the side of the pool, holding her close. Lou kicks still, like she wants to swim, but the hot water has a tendency of making her sleepy eventually, which calms her down a little, and they can just enjoy the bath.

Deadman is quiet for a long while, waving his hands through the water before leaning back as well. "I – there were times, when I wanted to, tried to, have a family," he says, with his usual brand of a little too much honesty. "Tried to meet a woman – or a man – who would complete me. Never did work out that way."

"Mmhh," Sam says, not sure how to reply.

"Only few times did it get to the point of intimacy, and it was always an… awkward point," Deadman says with a shake of his head. "I didn't see myself as repugnant then, I thought myself more akin to a medical marvel, really, but later… one can only take so many disgusted rejections before they begin to stick."

"That sounds shitty," Sam says. "I'm sorry."

"Artificial or not, I have a human brain, with all of its hang-ups and instincts, its needs and wants," Deadman murmurs. "The desire to be accepted and loved, it's normal, isn't it? Then why does it always seem to come out as other when it comes from me?"

Sam glances at him, clasping Lou by her sides so that she can splash freely. "Hate to break it to you, but you're creepy as hell, Deadman."

Deadman is a little taken aback by that, even affronted.

"And pushy. You go from zero to a hundred, and you overshare," Sam says. "For normal people, I figure you're just kinda… too much."

"Oh," Deadman says, his shoulders slumping. It's kind of amusing, a man so big trying to shrink down. "I – suppose I knew that. But I didn't realise…"

Sam snorts, shaking his head, and looks down at Lou.

"Do you think it's too much too, Sam?" Deadman asks.

"Eh. I'm used to it now," Sam says with a shrug and helps Lou turn around in the water. "It's fine."

Deadman lifts his knees, resting his hands on them, looking like a big kid for a moment, despite the beard and chest hair. He watches Lou and Sam, as the girl wiggles up to Sam's chest and lays down with a satisfied sigh. It's a while before either of them say anything, while Lou plays with the wet hair clinging to Sam's neck.

"I have been meaning to ask you something," Deadman asks. "When you named Lou… how much did you remember about your wife and unborn child?"

Sam's lips curl downwards and he shakes his head. "I had a picture, I knew – I knew she was my wife, I suspected it, anyway, but I… Until you told me, that was it. I didn't know we already named the kid, didn't know we named them Lou."

Deadman watches him silently and then sighs. "I am sorry. I didn't realise then. I thought you knew but didn't want to confront it."

Sam nods. He's figured that out by now. "It's fine," he says, putting a hand on Lou's back. "It's whatever."

"I suppose it is, at that," Deadman says. "Easier not to care, than to think about things long gone, isn't it?"

Sam scoffs and looks at him. "You do that too, a lot," he points out. "Kind of just… accuse people."

"Ah, apologies. I was only meaning to say that – I didn't mean to accuse," Deadman says and sighs, looking up at the ceiling. "An effect of growing up in a lab and then working at a morgue. I suppose I am somewhat stilted when it comes to human interaction."

"Yeah, well… same," Sam snorts, shaking his head, and they share a smile.

"Not that I did much growing," Deadman muses. "Never had a childhood, as it were."

Sam hums and leans his head back against the side of the pool. He's not sure he did, either, but it's not like he remembers much anything about it, so however it went down doesn't really affect him anymore.

There's a long moment of quiet, before Deadman admits, like it's a secret, "I don't want to go, Sam. Return to the Capital Knot, that is."

"Then don't," Sam says.

"I'm not sure it's that simple. And my work…"

"Heartman manages it," Sam points out, folding his arms under Lou and closing his eyes. "And he does a shit ton of work for Bridges, doesn't he, all kinda research. Mama did too, all over chiralgram. Why can't you do the same – just work from home?"

Deadman hums. "Heartman has laboratories, and all his research materials are right at hand."

"So we make sure you do too. Build you one here, have everything ported over," Sam says and sighs. "S'not that hard."

He can feel Deadman staring at him, but refuses to open his eyes to look. "Well," the man says, quietly. "Maybe it isn't, at that."

Chapter Text

The next week is a bit more busy than the previous few days have been.

It begins with an early morning delivery from Fragile Express – a porter comes in carrying a handful of parcels and a shipment of materials. Sam can't remember ordering them, must've been Deadman, or maybe it was Fragile herself, figuring he needs them. Either way, he gets a ton of metals and alloys, and enough resins, ceramics and chemicals too, to last him a while. On top of that, he gets other things.

The Engineer sent him a power skeleton mark 3, with a note attached to it, "You'll need one of these to switch the panels over on the shelter entrance, they weigh like mother trucker." Sam hadn't even thought about it, but yeah, he probably would. He'd send the guy a thank you note later.

The Elder sends him more seeds and saplings, samples of his whole stock, it seems, – including the infamous strawberry… and a warning that it might very well be the last thing he'd sent him. In the packet is included a book of anecdotes from Pre-Death Stranding times, things the old man remembered and didn't want the world to forget. Apparently he'd been writing it for a while, and was sending copies to everyone he knows.

The Craftsman sends him a packet of hematic bombs – and little crocheted toys for Lou, saying, "I think me and Engineer have the synthetic version of the blood figured out, lemme know what you think! 👍👍 Mark made most of the toys, he's been really excited about it ever since you visited, hope Lou likes them!" Sam sends them a thank you message with a picture of Lou excitedly chucking the toys around.

The last parcel is from Fragile, though it's not sent to Sam – it's for Deadman. It's a medium container with a small container inside it – she'd taken a parcel aimed at him elsewhere and reshipped it to the right address, it looks like.

It has the man's Bridges Handcuffs inside it.

"Can they track you here by those?" Sam asks, frowning.

"No, they're offline," Deadman assures him and puts the cuffs away. "I don't need them yet."

But that they're there at all is a new point of tension in the shelter anyway, a thing they don't talk about. Sam tries to ignore it but, he feels it. Deadman's little holiday is coming to an end, and they… they haven't made the thing official yet. Whether the man would be staying or going.

The Fragile Express porter takes away the packages Sam had posted – hematic yarn for the Artificer and the Craftsman and Hematic cloth for the Cosplayer, to see what they thought about them. Sam gives the porter his likes for the packages delivered too, with a little bonus for taking the dangerous route – the guy had cut through the BT zone, he deserved it. Seems a bit more satisfied with his work, leaving, than the first porter had been.

It's still weird, to be the recipient and the sender, and not the delivery man in the equation.

The second thing to happen occurs a couple of days later, while Sam is considering which room to print next – or whether to start saving materials for the potential lab spaces – and Deadman is feeding Lou in the kitchen. There's another caller, only this ain't a porter – or not a porter with a package for them, anyway.

Ben Hancock enters his ID into the system and pokes at the terminal. "Hear there's someone here who wants to join the network," he says. "But I am gonna need a little more than an automated system for that. This is a big deal, on our side as well as yours – need a little bit of trust here, you know?"

Sam hesitates behind the shelter terminal. So far it's been fine, using the automated system, and he'd rather keep it that way. The guy is probably right, and Sam definitely didn't hook anyone into the network before seeing their faces properly, but…

Ben Hancock is UCA, through and through.

And he has a BB pod strapped to his belly, too.

"Sam," Deadman says, coming to him, Lou in his arms. "It's up to you, of course, but I made the request for Ben for a reason. Going by your previous interactions, in person and via mail, you share something of a common interest, yes? And a common, shall we say… attachment."

Sam looks at Lou, happily cuddled to Deadman's chest as the man holds a bottle for her to drink from. She's grown a lot – she's already 2 and a half kilograms, and 46 centimeters. Still nowhere the size of a regular newborn, still premature, but growing stronger and bigger every day. Healthy and happy and currently looking utterly adorable in Deadman's hold. She wouldn't even fit a BB pod anymore, would she? Which is a weird thing to even consider, no one would ever even try to stuff her into one.

Ben Hancock had given Sam a lot of tips on how to handle her when she was still in a pod, how to stall autotoxemia without hooking into a stillmother. A lot of it carried over to now too, rocking her, swinging, playing, whistling to her, keeping her happy and being patient with her crying. Even playing in water – it was by Hancock's suggestion that Sam had ever taken her into the hot springs with him, in the first place.

He's just… not sure what to think about it, now that Hancock has a BB again.

"Sam," Deadman says softly, while Sam reaches over to stroke his thumb over Lou's cheek. "Ben's waiting."

"Yeah," Sam says and glances back. Looks a bit impatient too. "Shit."

Well… if, if he ever wanted Deadman to stay and maybe make a home here, he needs the connection. And if Deadman did stay, that would mean bringing UCA into the shelter too, wouldn't it? Deadman wouldn't be able to work properly without the full connection. And Sam… wants… him to stay. This would be like an incentive. Right?

"Tell me honestly," Sam says quickly. "Would Die-Hardman try to fuck me over? Take Lou, mess this up, anything?"

"I can't promise you anything won't happen," Deadman says regretfully. "But I can promise we will do whatever we can to stop it, won't we? You and I."

"Even if it goes against the executive orders from the President?" Sam asks, looking up at him. "You weren't so hot about that before."

Deadman shifts his weight and looks down at Lou. "Before was before," he says and meets his eyes. "Now I have too much to lose, don't I?"

Sam swallows, looking down, not able to meet his eyes. Then he turns to the terminal and disengages the automated system, sending forth a chiralgram. Him, Deadman, and Lou, all of them in it.

"Hey, Ben," Sam says, as the older porter almost stumbles over, as the chiralgram appears in front of him.

"Holy… Sam?" Ben asks, shocked. "And Deadman – and is that – holy."

Sam smiles wryly, pretending not to feel as terrified as he does, and Deadman puts a hand on his shoulder, gripping reassuringly. That makes it a little better, grounds him enough that he can nod at Hancock. "You wanna come in?"


 

"… well, of course everyone figured that if anyone needed a break, it would be you," Ben says, while Deadman offers the guy a hot drink, and Sam sits down with Lou in his lap. "But I knew, I knew it was more than that, the moment rumours started circulating that your BB expired, I knew. I just, in my wildest dreams, I didn't think you got her out, alive."

"Yeah," Sam says, looking down at Lou, who is trying to reach for the snacks laid out on the table. "Half of the time, I'm not sure I believe it either."

"Isn't the failure rate sky high, though?" Ben asks, looking at Deadman.

"70 percent, in regular cases. In the case of Lou, it was higher," Deadman says, sitting down with a cup of coffee. "I didn't believe it myself, until Sam sent me a message with her growth rate."

Sam avoids their eyes, feeling a bit embarrassed about that. He shrugs, clasping her hands around Lou's stomach, to keep her secure. "You got a BB now too, huh?" he says.

"Yeah," Hancock says and looks down, stroking a hand over the shell of the pod. The screening on it fades, to reveal the sleeping baby inside it, looking so much like how Lou had – the kid even has a thumb in their mouth. "BB-44," he says, smiling faintly. "I've taken to calling him Jim. Jimmy."

"Jim, huh?" Sam comments, noncommittal, while Lou spots the pod and goes quiet, staring. "How old is he – how long in the pod?"

Ben sighs, and lowers his hand. "Seven months. Estimated expiration is in four." So, Jim had been made and put into the pod before Edge Knot City and all that. So are they still making them, or…

Sam looks down as Lou attempts to reach over, aiming for the pod across the table. Sam and Hancock exchange looks and the guy stands up, coming closer to let Lou see. They all watch, a weird tension in the air, as Lou reaches to place both hands on the pod, cooing as she smushes her face against the glass.

Inside the pod, the BB blinks awake and then turns to look at her. Immediately, he claps her hands through the glass from the inside, pushing closer so that the pair are staring eye to eye

"My first BB expired on the job," Ben says quietly as they all watch the interaction. "Had to carry him to the incinerator myself – the hardest fucking trek of my life. Swore then I wouldn't take up another, thinking back to it still makes me want to bawl my eyes out, but… this kid's porter was killed on the job. Fell of a cliff, and somehow the BB pod survived the fall. No one wanted to take him, though, so late into the lifespan, so, I…"

"Would he have been retired, if you hadn't?" Sam asks, carefully holding Lou up so she doesn't topple over and fall. She's trying to stand, but she still doesn't have the muscles for that.

"If anyone hadn't taken him for long enough, I guess," Ben says, resting his hand on the pod and smiling as the kid inside looks up. "Gotta say, I am not ready for the heartbreak again, but if I can keep this one going a little longer, and maybe do a bit of good for the UCA while I'm at it, hell… might as well."

Sam swallows, and pulls Lou into his arms, hugging her close.

"How did you take Lou out of the pod?" Hancocok asks, sitting back down. "Was there a procedure, or… something? Something that made her live?"

Sam presses a kiss to Lou's hair and shakes his head. "No, there wasn't," he says. "I just – I took her to the incinerator, and I couldn't do it. Put her down on the slab and then, when it started going down, I just couldn't. I cracked the pod open and…"

Thinking back to it now makes his chest hurt. How small she'd been in his hand, how limb, how she didn't move, didn't breathe. "I don't know what happened. She just – came to when I was holding her."

Ben looks at him and then sighs, leaning back in his seat.

"I might have a theory about it," Deadman comments, slowly, turning the coffee cup in his gloved fingers. "It is only a theory, mind you, but… Lou is the only BB we know of who has not only been successfully connected to a DOOMS sufferer, such as Sam, but she is the only BB who's been connected to a repatriate as well. And Sam, you've repatriated numerous times while connected to her, haven't you?"

Sam frowns a little, tightening his hold on Lou. "I – yeah. Yeah, I have." Hell, that's how it started with Lou, didn't it. He hooked into her – and then there was the voidout.

"This is only idle conjecture, testing it would be inhumane to say the least, of course," Deadman says, not meeting his eyes. "But I feel… that BB-28 might have very well died with you, all those times – and repatriated with you, as well. And perhaps in that way you did for her what any mother does for their offspring, when in the womb – you shared your natural resistance with her. It could be that, effectively, you gave her antibodies against death."

Sam stares at him, his mouth gaping a little.

"What, seriously?" Ben asks.

"A theory only," Deadman says quickly. "It is not as if it can be tested, without considerable risks. Sam and Lou are extremely lucky that his repatriation did not cause her any irreversible damage, in fact."

Sam frowns, looking down at Lou. "I – back in the incinerator, when she was still in a pod, and dead," he says quietly. "I did… hook in with her. Twice," he says and looks up. "Got memory flashbacks and everything." Hell, he was still hooked in when he opened the pod, wasn't he?

Ben's eyes widen, and he turns to Sam.

"Now, don't get too excited," Deadman says. "This is wild, wild speculation at this point. BBs and DOOMS do not match well at all. However…" he looks at Sam. "Sam is something of a special case, in this."

"Still, it's something, isn't it?" Ben asks, very obviously getting excited despite the warning. "If Sam could do that not just for Lou, but other BBs as well, then – it has to be tried, right? Doesn't it? You know how many BBs are out there, and how many of them are expected to eventually expire?"

Sam shifts uncomfortably. "How many?" he asks.

"Over twenty."

Fuck, Sam thinks, and runs a hand over his face. "Are they making more?" he asks. "Are they still doing it, making more of them?"

Deadman hums and Hancock settles down.

"The program has been on hold for the last month or so – the Event after Edge Knot City did some damage to the stillmother system," Deadman says slowly. "But likely it will be continued. It is too… useful to not to."

"But – but hey, if you can somehow resuscitate them, with your repatriation stuff," Ben says. "Then maybe it's not so bad, maybe these kids, maybe they can live, after all, after doing this – maybe –"

Sam's shoulders hunch a little and he looks down at Lou. It kind of makes his skin crawl, but at the same time – fuck. Yeah. "Maybe," he agrees quietly.

Deadman looks at him and then reaches over, putting a hand on his knee. "Would you be willing to try, if situation arose, and there was a BB on the brink of expiration?"

Sam swallows and nods. "I guess," he says and looks over to Ben Hancock and his pod. "The kids don't deserve this shit anyway. And if I can help them live past all this bullshit… the fuck. Lemme try."

Ben grins, relieved, and puts both hands around Jim, giving the pod a little squeeze. "That's – that's good to hear," he says. "Maybe one day I'll bring Jimmy here, maybe one day…"

"Yeah," Sam says and holds Lou closer, making her grumble at his squeezing. "Yeah, maybe."

Ben stays the night and they talk about BBs until the late hours of the day. In the morning he hooks up the shelter to the Network, with full UCA connection pending. Not that it actually matters at this point – Ben has the cuffs and they would've been monitoring everything. Likely Die-Hardman and the rest already know.

"So. Relief, huh?" Ben asks, while pulling on his freshly cleaned suit. "Like Relief Effort? Relief Aid?"

"Sweet Relief," Deadman says from the couch, the dork.

Sam snorts. "Had to think of something," he says, embarrassed. "Was what I was feeling at the time."

"That's nice," Ben says, smiling. "I gotta get a move on, got another shelter to bring into the fold a bit south from here. You doing okay here, Sam?"

"Getting by, yeah," Sam agrees, nodding and folding his arms, looking around the living room. It's starting to look a bit more like actual home now. There's Lou's toys, Sam's weights, Deadman hung up his shitty painting at some point, and with all the fabric and yarn stuff lying about… it looks actually lived in. "I know it's a bit far from everything, but… it's how I like it."

"So I see," Ben agrees and glances back at Deadman, who's holding Lou in his lap as they sit on the cough – he's reading something on his phone, and Lou has her toys all over his lap. "And you're…" he motions between him and Deadman. "Good?"

Sam glances at Deadman and nods. "Yeah. I'm good. Also, got something for you," he adds, and goes to pick up one of the scarves he's made, with slightly more endurable string this time. It still has the more breakable, softer string too, to make it actually comfortable, but with the infusion fibres and the timefall-proof string, it should last a little longer. "This got a bit of a BT-deterring effect," Sam says, holding it out. "Got a bit of my blood in it, so. Might save you in a pinch."

"Geez, Sam," Ben says, looking sincerely touched. "Thank you – I didn't know you could do stuff like this. BT-deterrent clothing, damn."

"I'm still working on it," Sam says and shrugs. "Early prototypes. But it's something. Don't let it sit in timefall for no reason, though, it'll deteriorate fast."

"I'll keep that in mind," Hancock says, and wraps the scarf around his neck, under his collar. "Thanks. And – good luck."

"You too," Sam says, nodding. "Stay safe out there, Ben."

And then it's just him, Deadman and Lou again.

"I have been looking into the sort of laboratories you can print," Deadman says, while Sam runs the air-conditioning in the garage to clear out any lingering chiralium from Hancock's departure. "I think something of this nature might be good to start with. What do you think?"

Sam goes to check and – he has pulled up a neonatal care unit schematic, which comes with incubators and stuff pre-installed. "Huh," Sam says.

"It seems big enough that I could easily install my own equipment in, turn it into something of a franken care unit for BBs," Deadman muses. "Granted, if our idea works, concerning your brand of... immunity, of course. Tell me, have you repatriated since…"

Sam sighs and nods. "Yeah. It was before I took Lou to the incinerator, but yeah, I have," he agrees. "Amelie cutting off her beach didn't change a thing. It's been a while though," and thank fuck for that.

"Glad to hear it," Deadman says and considers it. "Should this work, it might be safest to go about it the Heartman method, as it were – medically induced cardiac arrest."

Sam sits down beside him with a sigh and stares up. The idea that his… fucking nonsense might help people, might help BBs… "We don't know if Lou's a repatriate," Sam comments. "And we're not fucking testing either, but if she is… if I can somehow spread it, share my shit with those kids, turn them into repatriates too…" then, he's not sure what. But it's a freaky fucking idea. "Do you think it's possible?"

"Hmm… that would make you into something of an anti-Extinction Entity, wouldn't it?" Deadman comments. "You can survive everything, can't you, even city-levelling voidouts. You don't get sick, you don't get infections, you're immune to diseases – I should know, I tested your blood and tissue samples on many ailments… only thing you are not immune to is the natural passage of time. You still age."

Sam sighs in agreement and reaches to pick Lou from Deadman's lap, giving her kisses before laying her on his shoulder. It makes everything feel better, holding her.

"This is more wild speculation on my part, but if we could, in essence, distribute this ability of yours, using your ability to turn others into repatriates…" Deadman muses. "We could in essence engineer a Death Stranding immune brand of people."

Sam hums. "Only if it's passable through progeny," Sam says. "And I'm pretty sure it isn't. Can't pass Ka through the Ha, or so people told me."

Deadman looks at him curiously. "Told you when?"

"Back when they were trying to figure out if me being repatriate would affect the kid," Sam says, shrugging.

Deadman blinks and then sits up a bit straighter, turning to him. "You remember that, Sam?"

Sam blinks and then frowns. "Huh," he says. "I. I don't know where that came from."

"Hm," Deadman says, tilting his head. "Maybe the damage isn't as permanent as we thought, after all."

Sam frowns, not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. He forgot shit for a reason, after all – if he starts remembering… will he want to forget again, want to spend the next ten years inhaling chiralium in the atmosphere to give himself brain damage again? "Shit," he mutters and stands up, rocking Lou in his arms. She's falling asleep.

"Sam," Deadman says, uncertain. "Is something the matter?"

"I've forgotten most of the things I've ever fucking known, Deadman," Sam says. "Twenty years worth of memories, probably more."

"Surely recalling even some of then is a good thing?"

"Not – not if it changes me," Sam says, scowling. "That's a whole 'nother person. Don't wanna change back."

"Change is a natural part of life," Deadman says, leaning his elbows to his knees, watching him. "But I doubt you will. That's not how human brains work – with or without those memories, you've lived your life a certain way these past few years. Especially so these past few months. Such things make new pathways in your brain – and having a child, that re-writes your brain almost completely. You have so many new priorities, never mind the new hormonal activity. Past memories doesn't change that."

Sam gives him a look. "Despite what you say, I'm not actually a mother, Deadman. I didn't actually have Lou."

"Doesn't matter. Hormonal changes caused by parenthood happen to fathers too, Sam," Deadman says, and stands up, coming to him. "Regardless, I doubt you will ever remember everything. You might be able to regenerate tissue, maybe even brain tissue, but regenerating memories stored in long lost brain cells, I doubt that is within even your reach."

Sam shifts uneasily from foot to foot, while Lou coos in his ear with sleepy concern. Deadman takes him by the shoulders and gives him a gentle squeeze. "But, we could certainly print out some scanners and monitors and have a look. You've just finished chiralium cleanse after ten years of build up – it should be interesting to see how the scans compare to your previous ones from before."

Sam hesitates. "You have scans of me?" he asks.

"Sam, you were scanned every time you turned up at a Bridges facility unconscious – and the cuffs kept a constant surveillance of your vitals. Of course we have scans."

Sam blows out a breath. Well, of course they did it. "Yeah, okay. Let's – let's do the scans, then."


 

They have to give the Engineer and the Craftsman a call, to make adjustments to the shelter printer. The pair argue over the code for a bit, before sending Sam the modified one – with newfound ability to add new room designs in whenever he likes.

"We're all going to need new shelters too," Craftsman says somewhat morosely over a chiralgram. "We've just about completely redesigned the whole shelter printer system. Thanks a lot, Sam."

"Yeah, thanks! I'm definitely going to start saving materials, to make a new one," the Engineer says and waves cheerfully at him, before disconnecting.

Sam and Deadman consider the options and choose a general sort of medical room, with all the necessary monitors and outlets for addition of various equipment. The first one they get, which uses up almost all of their remaining chemicals, is an MRI machine.

"Later we can recycle it for things we are likely to use more often," Deadman muses, seeming happy as a clam in his new space. It's very much his space, too – Sam feels a little uncomfortable even setting foot into the room. It's very much a hospital kind of room, and he can just imagine Deadman settling there to work. For now, though, the MRI is the only thing they can afford, after printing the room.

They make use of it pretty much immediately too. While Lou is having one of her many daily naps, Deadman talks Sam through the procedure and Sam lies down for the scanner ring to spin and whir around his head, to take a full scan of his brain. He has a vague impression that he's gone through it before, many times, but can't remember where and when. Not yet, anyway.

"Hmm," Deadman says, as he pulls up a chiralgram of Sam's brain and zooms in on it, expanding it tenfold. "Yeah, there's definitely changes. I didn't think of it much at the time, of course, but you had places of decreased activity – like here and here. And the chiralium buildup was clear enough, anyone could see…"

He moves around the chiralgram while Sam sits up, eyeing the thing. S'not every day you see your own brain, huh. "Looks kinda spotty," he comments, shifting uncomfortably.

"Yes, those spots are the places where the buildup was the worst," Deadman agrees. "And I have to say… they are smaller. I do believe, Sam, that you are really regenerating your grey matter. It's incredible, simply incredible, the things repatriates can recover from."

Sam scowls a little at that, not sure what to think. "So, clearing the chiralium, it's…"

"It's letting you heal – without the buildup blocking the way, your… unnatural healing factor is allowed to run its course," Deadman agrees, a whole lot more enthusiastic than Sam is. He zooms in even further, deep and deeper into the folds of Sam's brain, to one specific spot. "This region, I remember looking in it at one point. It relates sensory memory – specifically to your sense of touch, and how you remember it. I wondered if the damage here might explain something about your aphenphosmphobia… and it might, if in a somewhat backwards way."

Sam shakes his head, not sure what he's getting at. "How?"

Deadman looks at him. "I expect you now have an easier time remembering that touch of others… isn't always unpleasant." He holds out his hand.

Feeling his cheeks heat up a little, Sam looks down and accepts it, gripping tight. Even with Deadman's glove on the way...

"You like holding Lou to your skin, don't you?" Deadman says and points a finger of his free upwards, like making a point. "A very well studied aspect of baby care, skin-to-skin care. Very beneficial to the baby, of course, many health benefits there. But in the light of your, likely still lingering, phobia…"

Shaking his head, Sam sits up. "Lou's different. Also I hadn't done the cleanse when I started."

"Right, yes," Deadman agrees, coming to a stop as his theory falls apart, "But," he says then, perking again. "It likely is still a factor. Somehow. I need to do more research on the matter."

"Sure," Sam says, lowering their hands, and looks at the chiralgram. "But, just to be clear… I'm recovering brain cells?"

"Regenerating them, yes," Deadman says, satisfied. "I would need a sample to tell for sure, of course, but that seems to be taking things a bit far."

"Uhhuh," Sam says, squinting at the hovering 'gram. "So, brain cells yes, and the memories…?"

"Well. You might recover some of them. The chiralium buildup didn't only kill neurons – it also severed connections. Likely there are still brain cells there, with memories intact, which have simply been cut off from communicating," Deadman says and pats his hand. "It's not something people regularly can recover from, but… it seems like in your case those are coming back, now – like Knot cities, being able to integrate back in the network, thanks to the new prepper shelters coming online in between."

"So, I might start remembering things, after all," Sam says and swallows. "Great."

Chapter Text

Sam wakes up to Lou's discontented whining and mumbling, the sort of noise he's learned is the prelude to full on crying. Lifting his head from the pillow he groans, "Coming, Lou," and waves enough for the motion sensor to pick it up and turn the lights on. Lou, lying on the bed beside him with pillows around her, wiggles in a way that tells Sam it's not just that she's hungry – there's also clean up to be done. With a groan, Sam runs a hand over his face and then sits up, picking her up. "Alright, alright… toilet first."

He goes through the motions half asleep, stripping her, taking care of the diaper, giving her a quick rinse before powdering her up and putting on a new diaper. Lou relaxes into it – she's smart enough to know that she's being taken care off, which Sam greatly appreciates. Once she's all covered and clothed up again, Sam picks her up, rocking her as he moves to the kitchen, to get her some formula.

He's barely gotten the thing printed out, when Deadman comes into the room, looking a little sleepy but fully alert.

"You don't need to get up every time she does, you know." Sam says, rocking Lou as he offers her the bottle. "Twenty minutes, and she's out like a light."

"I don't sleep much as it is," Deadman says, watching them from the doorway. "And there's a kind of… loveliness to it. Watching you care for her."

Sam looks away, feeling his cheeks heat up. "Geez," he mutters, keeping his eyes on Lou. Where does the guy get off, saying shit like that? "Glad I'm entertaining somebody."

"My, was that too forward again?" Deadman asks. "Can't quite tell anymore. We've gotten so much closer now, haven't we?"

Sam shifts his weight from foot to foot and glances at him uneasily. Lou's hands are curling around his fingers holding the bottle, and it's grounding, but… "I suppose," Sam says and shakes his head. "You wanna feed her?"

"No, I want to watch you do it," Deadman says and folds his arms and smiles, leaning on the doorframe. "Panacea to all my aches."

"For fuck's sake," Sam mutters. He's too damn tired for this, to try and figure out what Deadman's saying. He's so fucking blatant at times, and then he isn't – it's hard to keep track of where they're standing. "Something's up?" Sam asks, uneasy.

Deadman hesitates and then sighs. "I should start thinking of the return trip," He says, and as Sam goes tense, he amends. "Or the – visit. Back to the Capital. I have loose ends that need to be tied, and of course I need to pack my things, if I am ever to settle here – a lot of cargo needs to be handled and shipped over. I'm afraid it has to be done by me, in person – I do not trust anyone else."

Sam hesitates, looking at Lou. She's blinking slowly and sleepily at him, and – damn, were her lashes always so long? Maybe they're getting darker. Her hair's a bit darker now, too, and there's more of it. She's grown, more and more each day.

"Sam," Deadman says. "The sooner I go, the sooner I can come back. And hopefully I can also secure some materials for us here, for the expansion. It will take quite a lot, to bring this place up to spec, so to speak – for me to be able to continue my work, unhindered."

"Yeah, yeah, I… get that," Sam murmurs. He just doesn't like it. "When were you thinking of going, then?"

"I thought tomorrow I could put in a call for a porter to take me," Deadman says. "Who knows how long it will take for a porter to take the order, so the sooner I do it –"

"Don't be stupid," Sam says, shaking his head. "Lou an' I will take you."

"Ah – are you certain? You only just cleared your chiralium contamination."

"You made the masks for us. I can print one that'll fit Lou too, right?" Sam asks, which reminds him, "Shoulda published that on the network, anyway, forgot about it…"

"I didn't, I already added it into the wide circulation," Deadman assures and comes closer. "It's a long way, from here to Lake Knot."

"You're talking to a porter, you realise," Sam says, looking at him and shaking his head. "S'not that long, relatively speaking. Roads make it easy."

"Roads you built, and, ah… it is a former porter, I believe," Deadman says, coming right up to him, into his personal space. Sam shifts a little, uneasy, but doesn't back down, and neither does Deadman, who puts a hand on his where it's supporting Lou. "If you're sure, then certainly. Travelling with you will be much more enjoyable than even with a trusted Fragile Porter."

Sam nods, watching him, expecting – something. It doesn't come. "So, when are you thinking? Tomorrow?"

"Would it be too soon?" Deadman asks. "I have much work to do, many preparations… and here I can do none of them."

"It's fine," Sam says, shaking his head. "We'll go tomorrow, if you'd like. Call Fragile, see if she has a boat going out, whatever."

"Tomorrow it is, then," Deadman says, looks at him for a moment, and then hugs him, sideways, with an arm around Sam's waist. Lou mumbles sleepily between them, and Sam sighs and closes his eyes, leaning back into the man.

He thinks he's figuring it out, now.

Just in time for Deadman to leave. Just his luck, isn't it.


 

While Sam packs up the truck, Deadman tinkers with the printer to produce them all chiralium masks for the journey. Sam hauls in some travel kits for Lou, and packs a container of formula and diapers and such in the cab of the truck too, just in case – would make changing her that much easier. By the time he's done with the preparations, so is Deadman.

Sam stares at Lou in his arms, eyebrows arched.

"Mam!" Lou calls, through her little blue chiralium mask, arms raised. She's held secure in Deadman's arms – wearing a  miniature version of Sam's porter suit, full with automated hood and everything. She even has a small set of boots on.

Damn, she looks adorable.

"Now the baby and the mother match," Deadman says with a great deal of satisfaction. "It was only a small matter of calibrating the size, and under it she's wearing her usual things, but I thought… it would be cute."

"God, it is," Sam says, grinning, and picks Lou from his arms. "Look at you, baby. Big strong porter, you are."

Lou shrieks and kicks happily, putting her hands on his face as Sam brings her closer for kisses. He doesn't even care that she pulls at his hair and tugs at his whiskers, she's too cute to stay mad at. "Have you been talking to the Cosplayer?" Sam asks Deadman, while sliding Lou securely into her harness, under his own suit. The baby version of porter suit seems like something she'd do.

"Ah, a word or two might have been exchanged on the matter," Deadman says, utterly unrepentant, and picks up his container of belongings. "I thought we should leave in style, that's all. Are we ready to go?"

"Yeah," Sam says, shaking his head. "I think so."

"Lights turned off, the faucets closed, the power is off…?" Deadman trails off, looking around. "Perhaps we should check."

"Deadman, it's an automated shelter. I might not have an AI system, but everything runs itself," Sam says and then hesitates. They look at each other and Sam sighs. "Yeah, okay, let's check."

They go through the rooms and Deadman checks up on the greenhouse – where water would flow, lights would turn on and off. Not that Sam would be gone for that long, two days maybe, but still. "I have left instructions for you here," Deadman says, motioning to a notepad he'd printed. "And there's the automated system too, of course, but it would be best to check up on the plants every now and then."

"Yeah, sure," Sam says. The greenhouse had become more of a Deadman's thing than his, really – the guy had spent some time calibrating it just so for peak performance. Sam was happy to let him – and though it hadn't been up and running for that long yet, it did look like it had benefited from Deadman's care.

It would be… weird, looking after it without Deadman explaining everything to him. Sam could do it now, he's pretty sure – he's not forgetting things as much anymore, like the stuff he's supposed to be doing, something that was just said and completely passed him by… but Deadman was still much better at this sort of stuff than him.

"I'll make sure the plants stay alive," Sam says, feeling a bit weird. "And maybe once you come back, there's even something here to eat."

"And would that not be something," Deadman says, sighing. "I suppose that is all of it, then. Shall we?"

Sam motions him to go ahead. "After you."

He does make a sweeping glance over the shelter, after. It would be… probably unpleasant, being here without Deadman. The shelter's bigger now, there's a bedroom – where Deadman wouldn't be sleeping for a while. There's the hot bath room, which would, on the other hand, see plenty of use. The greenhouse, of course, the lab, which would probably stay untouched until the man's return…

There's a space here, perfectly Deadman-shaped, and it's strange thinking of it empty again.

"Guess that's it," Sam says and looks down at Lou. "Ready to set out, Lou?"

She chews on her thumb and looks up at him, making a quizzical noise. She doesn't get it yet. Lucky kid.

"Yeah," Sam sighs and turns to follow Deadman. "Let's go."

Soon after they're on the way, Sam engaging the automated systems as they go, and Lou realising what's about to happen and kicking excitedly against his suit in anticipation of speedy times. "Hope you don't mind going fast," Sam says to Deadman, while easing down the hill, the shelter locked up and secure behind him.

"Fast? How fast are we talking?" Deadman asks and then yelps, grabbing a hold of his seat as Sam shifts to higher gear then boosts down the road.

Deadman, it turns out, does not enjoy going fast the same way Sam and Lou do, which is a little disappointing, so though hearing him shout with dismay is kind of amusing, Sam slows down to more reasonable speeds… until they make it to the road at least. Then all bets are off.

"With this kind of reckless driving, how are you the most legendary porter in the UCA?" Deadman grumbles, as they speed down the road.

"Speed counts for something, and I was definitely the fastest," Sam grins, while Lou kicks and squirms happily. "Though I suppose someone might've broken some of my records by now."

"I doubt it," Deadman huff, giving him a distrustful look.

Sam shrugs and changes gears. "So, what kind of stuff are you bringing from Capital Knot?"

"The essentials for now. My records, research materials, memory drives, some equipment," Deadman lists. "It'll likely not make over in a single go, but if I can get everything packed up and put in pending orders, it should come eventually, yes?"

Sam shrugs in agreement. "Bridges' gonna be okay with you taking that stuff?" he asks. "Figure a lot of it's classified."

"A lot of it is, but my move shouldn't affect my contracts," Deadman says, reaching over to ruffle Lou's hair. "You were right in that Heartman manages, and his work is sometimes more classified and sensitive than mine. Granted, I've been involved with more… unseemly projects, but the data he has accumulated over many years is in some way more vital. And if he can manage that at a distance with the contracts he has, then I should be able to do the same. There is only one thing I worry about."

"Which is?" Sam asks, glancing at him.

"Well. I still perform many autopsies for the Bridges," Deadman shrugs. "Not all of it was unpleasant, some of it was quite interesting, research-wise. Doing that at a distance is likely going to be impossible."

Sam hums. "What about that – what was it. The thing the Medical Engineer made? Haven't they made more of them yet – that lets you do operations at a distance, right, using the chiral network?"

"Ah, the medical device you delivered to the Mountaineer? Yes, they have made more of them, but currently they have greater need in use of actively saving lives," Deadman says with a sigh. "One would not use something so valuable for simple autopsies."

"Maybe one day," Sam says, glancing at him. "They're making more stuff with the network, right?"

They talk about the advancements made to and thanks to the chiral network for a long while, as Sam settles into the practice of driving, and Lou, eventually, falls asleep, lulled by the purr of the car's engines and their droning voices.


 

What was once a several weeks worth of travelling is now, thanks to the road, a nine hour drive. During it Sam stops only a handful of times, to charge the truck's batteries, to feed and change Lou and to let Deadman stretch out after a long time sitting.

"Maybe I should take a leaf from your book and exercise more," the man groans behind his mask, rubbing at his back. "Those seats are so uncomfortable."

Sam looks at him and then at the truck. They're not particularly uncomfortable to him, but he's used to much worse. "If it'd help," he says. "Though we could just change the seat probably, print a new one."

"There's that," Deadman says, leaning back. His back lets off a loud crack and he sighs with relief. "There, much better," he says and turns to Sam and Lou, who are taking the air, Sam stretching his legs while Lou wiggles and squirms in his arms, free from the harness for a bit, and in a chiralium mask. She's been asleep most of the way and needs a bit of exercise.

Deadman hums. "Aren't you a sight?"

"What," Sam asks, flat.

"Matching outfits, matching masks… you two really do look adorable," Deadman says, grinning, judging by the creases around his eyes, and Sam sighs, shaking his head and looking away. Deadman chuckles and takes something out of his pocket. "Do you mind if I take a picture?"

Sam gives him a sideways look and then shakes a head, turning the baby in his arms so that she's facing the camera. "Look over there, Lou," he says and points. "Deadman's taking a photo."

"Poto!" Lou squeals excitedly and kicks her feet. Chuckling, Deadman peers at them through the phone screen, moving the device up and down until he has them in the frame just so. A moment later, there's a click and a flash.

Deadman looks at the result, and his eyes visibly soften. "Perfect," he says and comes to show it to them. Lou, in her excitement to see it, almost knocks the phone off his hands, and then of course she demands they take more photos, and so they end up with a couple of selfies too, all three of them, with the backdrop of dead wilderness behind him. They're mostly just kind of hilarious, with the masks and everything, but…

Yeah, Sam agrees as Deadman transfers the photos to his phone. Perfect seems about right.


 

They arrive at Lake Knot just as it starts raining, with a Fragile Express porter waiting for them. The man damn near gives them a salute. "Doctor Deadman? Fragile sends her apologies – she's currently in Port Knot and couldn't come herself," the porter says. "But the ship is ready to take you, and she will be there to receive you as you disembark."

"Excellent, most excellent," Deadman says. "Do you mind if I take a moment – I will be right over with you, once I've said my goodbyes."

"Of course, sir."

"Very good."

Sam hovers by the truck, the entrance leading to the Lake Knot harbour, with Lou tucked into his suit again. They're out of the rain, but there's no filters in the harbour, so everyone's got a mask on – including the man from Fragile Express. Apparently the use had caught on fast.

"Well then," Deadman says, turning to them. "I suppose this will be it, for a while."

"Yeah," Sam says, looking him over. Deadman always has a sort of stiff body language, he's noticed – whereas Sam can't stand to sit still for long without moving, Deadman doesn't really move much. It makes him easy to read – slump of a shoulder, and it's plainly visible how miserable he feels.

Sam sighs, fishes Lou out of his suit, and then holds her out to him. Deadman accepts her without question and hugs her close, sighing, "Oh, little Lou, precious little Lou, I will miss you terribly. You don't even know how much."

Lou babbles softly to him, reaching to tug at his beard, mumbling, "Daman," and trying to smack a kiss at his chin. It seems to almost break the man – he sort of wibbles at her, like he's about to cry.

"You're going to be a Dadman soon," Sam snorts, stepping forward.

"I would be honoured," Deadman says with great dignity, before sighing and holding Lou close enough to press their foreheads together for a moment, closest to a kiss one can get with the masks on, really. Lou coos delightedly, and almost comes away from the contact with Deadman's glasses in her grip, and it looks like he's seriously going to let her have them, too. Dork.

"Are you going to cry, Deadman?" Sam asks, reaching to untangle Lou's little fingers from the glasses.

"Chiral allergy," the man says quickly. "Should see if there is a design for goggles that block that out."

"Yeah, sure," Sam says, pushing the glasses' handles more securely behind his ears. Then, while Deadman holds Lou and before he can think better of it, Sam takes the man by the back of his neck and brings him close, so that their foreheads touch.

"Oh, Sam," Deadman sighs, looking at him.

"We'll be waiting, alright?" Sam says, closing his eyes. "Come back soon."

"I will," Deadman says, his voice choked, shifting his hold on Lou to hold her with one arm, wrapping the other around Sam's waist. "I will be as swift as I ever may. I'll be with you before you know."

Sam smiles a little behind the mask, doubting that, but it's a nice sentiment. "Good," he says, and pulls back a little. "We'll see you then."

Deadman nods, sniffling a little, and then hands Lou over almost reluctantly. "Take care of her now. Take many pictures – send them to me," he says wistfully. "Please. I want to see how she grows while I am away."

"Will do," Sam says, holding Lou to his chest. "Have a safe trip, Deadman."

And that's when Lou realises what's going on, as Deadman picks up his cargo, and turns around, and walks away from them. At first Lou makes a confused mumble, and then she looks up at Sam like he's supposed to explain to her what's going on. Like he even can. And then she whines. And kicks. And finally breaks out into confused, discontented wailing, "Daman! Daman!"

Deadman's steps falter a little and his shoulders slump. Sam shakes his head at the man's back, and then shushes Lou, turning around to walk away himself, to head back to the truck and go. It's not like he can fix it.

"Daman!" Lou cries. "Mam, Daman!"

"Sorry, baby," Sam murmurs, cuddling her close even as she tries to squirm away. "Gotta be without Deadman for a while. It's okay, it's okay, shh…"

"Daman!"


 

It's a miserable ride back home. Sam kind of knew it would be, though he hadn't really acknowledged it as such. Lou cries and wails away, and nothing Sam can do will help her settle, no food, no rocking, no singing, nothing. She just wails, because Deadman isn't there, crying and shrieking until she finally, after what feels like hours, begins wearing herself out. Then she snuffles sadly and miserably at his chest, making pitiful little whimpers, and that's even worse.

It definitely doesn't help Sam's own mood, either. The whole thing was so sudden. Just like Deadman arriving. Several hours of driving aside, anyway. It doesn't make Sam eager to head home, to an empty shelter. Doesn't seem like it would make things much better.

He'd been meaning to use the return trip to visit friends – stop by the Engineer's place, maybe go and see the Craftsman and the Artificer. But within an hour of driving he knows he's in too shitty a mood to do either – he'd be a terrible guest, and Lou, though she's on her way to exhausted sleep, is probably not any better.

Night spent in the truck, feeling sorry for themselves, seems right up their alley, really – so, once the night falls and the roads get too dark to see properly, Sam looks for the nearest timefall shelter and rides the truck under its cover.

Then, he doesn't sleep. He stares outside – it's not raining, yet, but it looks like it might, there's clouds rolling about. Where he'd stopped, it's something of a valley, and timefall comes down often – the fact that the place is stripped down to rock and sand and nothing is testament to that. Even bacteria don't live here anymore, timefall sped them all to extinction.

"Shit," Sam mutters and runs a hand over his eyes, keeping the other on Lou. She's asleep now, a heavy weight against his chest as he leans his seat back and tries to pretend like he's going to get some rest.

Timefall started just before his birth, he thinks. Or before his… c-section. Whatever. It was around the same time as the first voidouts started happening. Which came first, the timefall or the voidout, Sam's not sure. Had anyone pinned a precise date on the first timefall? The voidouts were well documented. At the time, anyway.

He thinks he remembers it, a little. There is this impression in the back of his head, of a – a place, different from this. Towns and cities built of wood and stone, concrete and metal. Old things, sights, places, buildings. Bigger places, prettier places. And then, the voidouts that started chipping away at them, hole by hole, crater by crater.

There's no city with more than a hundred thousand people left, anymore. Most don't come even close.

Back then, there were cities of millions – with death rates to match. And it took… it took a long while, for people to get how to handle it, the deaths, after the Death Stranding. How to treat bodies. They were still trying to bury people, when Sam was little. They did it faster, like that would trap the BTs underground.

Sam closes his eyes, draws a breath and releases it slowly.

Was Deadman around then? Hell, he isn't even sure when Deadman was made, how old he is. He looks older than Sam, but Sam doubts he actually is. A guy like him… he's such an obvious result of the Post-Stranding mindset. People grasping at straws, trying to come up with something, anything, that would work on the thing. Like BBs – let's make an artificial man without parents that was never born, maybe he will be immune to BTs and to the voidout!

Sam should've asked how old Deadman is. Should've asked a lot of things. Like what it was they were doing, really, and… and if it was going to stick.

Sam takes a deep breath and tries to search for that point in tiredness that so easily carries him over to sleep usually. It's not there – he's slept on piles of rocks and in timefall, at the edge of craters, hell… he's slept in snow. He usually has no trouble just nodding off, but now… he can't seem to find it. Can't breathe right, can't find a comfortable spot – can't get his stupid fucking thoughts to shut the fuck up...

It's almost a relief when his phone lets out a noise of incoming alert. Lou mumbles in her sleep unhappily and sucks on his shirt as Sam picks the phone up and looks.

It's an automated alert by Bridges, sent out to all nearest porters and travellers on the network.

The Elder had died, and someone was needed to transport the body to an incinerator.

Chapter Text

For the last ten years, Sam hasn't had that many friends. He hasn't wanted them, hadn't gone out of his way to make them, and if some happened by accident, he probably forgot them later on. Making connections and all that, it hadn't been for him and he'd avoided it like the plague. Tried to do the same with the westward expedition, too, rebuilding the network, connecting those dots… with less of a success maybe.

When Mama died, it had been too damn… weird to mourn. She'd gone from a guiding voice in his cuffs to this weird point of guilt and unsettled, unfair feeling he couldn't do anything about. He'd carried her alive, maybe, but he'd figured she was done for, somewhere in the middle of it, and somehow it had cut off the knees from the feeling. He just felt tired, at the end of it, tired and confused and helpless. And then she was gone, but also… not.

The Elder is more clean cut. A guy who lived, who Sam knew, who Sam knew was in a bad shape, and who died. Somehow, there, in that simplicity of it, there's room to breathe.

"There you are," Sam murmurs, while lifting the body to the incinerator slab. "There you go."

Lou doesn't get it, she's still miserable and sulky from Deadman's departure, but she's watching as Sam eases the body's knees down, lays it flat. There's no one but them there, which feels a bit… wrong, in a way. The Elder's been a major part of the prepper community, helping everyone out, sending them fresh food and seeds, giving them advice. You'd think there'd be some ceremony, that people would…

But of course they don't. They can't and they won't set out, especially knowing that burning bodies just releases more chiralium in the area. And you can't set up a chiralgram system in an incinerator – the high concentration of chiralium in the area makes it impossible, it would just short out. Still… it feels like there should be people there, in attendance, to give the man a proper send off.

"I'm sorry, old man," Sam says, patting the Elder's chest through the body bag awkwardly. "And thanks."

It's completely inadequate, but that's what you get when you have delivery man dealing with what shreds of funeral ceremonies are left. Everything is always done in such a hurry. Can't risk another BT, after all.

And Sam's too sad, too miserable, to think of anything better.

So, after making sure he's got everything done, Sam turns to the terminal, and starts up the incinerator.

There'd be no chiralium spike for the Elder – he's not an EE. Not so much as a storm to mark his passage into ash and into the atmosphere. He'd just be a minor bump up in the chiralium in the area, which might one day condense into a cloud, which might one day rain down. And who knows, maybe that's why they have timefall now – the revenge of BTs who couldn't be, who were rendered to dust, who became nothing but particles in the air.

Lou whimpers quietly against his chest, and Sam rests both hands on her, looking down. "He was one of the good ones," he says. "Suspicious, paranoid son of a bitch. I'll tell you about him, once you're older."

Hell, he might even remember it by that time.

Lou whines and mumbles sadly, "Daman…" and with a shake of his head Sam turns to the incinerator entrance.

Yeah, no rain, not even clouds. It's sunny here, where the mountain winds sweep the valley and blow the rain downwind, towards what had been the factory area. Sam had never thought about why the area is the way it is, but now that he does – maybe that's why the area is a constant swamp of rain and BTs. The ash and chiralium from the Incinerator is blown down there, and then sits, festering, ruining everything, attracting BTs. Might be why the factory was destroyed in the first place – the incinerator kind of fucked it over.

Or maybe it was the destruction of Middle Knot, which messed up the weather in the area. Wasn't just the nuke that fucked the area up too – it was a nuke, followed by too many dead people for anyone to collect and burn, leading to BTs, leading to voidouts with all those poor bastards whom the nuke didn't take out. Shit…

Sam runs a hand over his face and then heads to the truck, trying not to think about it, trying not to think about anything.

It's a long way home. Lou doesn't cheer up much during any of it, even boosting doesn't make her any happier. Sam stops a couple of times on the way, to change and feed her, but aside from that he makes straight home, not stopping even for the rain, pushing through all the way. They have vehicle repair system at home, anyway.

And damn, even the hill looks sad, when he drives up it on a path that's now slowly getting beaten into the hillside by the passage of vehicles. Sam doesn't have an AI system to welcome him, which he kind of regrets now – he just unlocks the shelter and drives in, and there's nothing to really mark it as returning home. Maybe he should get that – people have it for a reason, right? For some it's the only company they keep.

How sad is that?

"Shit," Sam murmurs, turning the engine off and for a moment just sitting there, behind the wheel, in the garage. Lou's quiet against his chest, scratching at his shirt and looking tired and sad. Sam looks down at her, stroking his hand over her head, and she turns her masked face to his chest with a deep sigh of utter melancholy.

"How about a hot bath, baby?" Sam asks, gently easing the mask off her. "I think we deserve it."

Lou mumbles and looks up at him, blinking. The corners of her lips tilt down and she pouts.

"Yeah," Sam agrees quietly. "I hate it too."

They have a bath anyway, after Sam's chucked everything into the washer or the recycler. Lou splashes about half-heartedly and then just lays limp on his chest, sucking her thumb and being sad. Sam strokes his hand over her back and leans back, trying to find his usual joy in the hot bath. It's not coming to him.

It's gonna be a miserable few days, huh.


 

The day after they came home, Sam tries to figure out what to do. When Deadman was there, it seemed like there was constantly something they could do, like there was somehow more potential. Sam has the same things, the same means – a chiral printer and now an open access to the network, he has his yarn work, the weaving, he could still work at that, he has the greenhouse and the weights and…

He doesn't do any of them. He doesn't even feel that restless, for once, but that's because he doesn't feel like much anything, really. Mostly he just feels like lying on the floor with Lou and trying to get her to cheer up. It works, a bit, here and there – he manages to tease out a smile and a giggle from her by playing with D-Dog, but it's short lived. The moment she turns to look, expecting to find Deadman there right beside them, the smile's gone again.

And then she looks at him accusingly.

"I can't make him re-appear, Lou," Sam says, pulling her to him and pressing a kiss on her hair. "He's got business in Capital, gotta wrap shit up and stuff. He'll be back. I promise you, baby, he'll be back."

They spend a lot of time just laying there, in a depressed, idle misery. It would be embarrassing, except there's no one there to see, so… who cares. They can spend a day feeling sorry for themselves, who's to judge. Aside from Sam's headache, maybe.

The second day after their return home, Sam puts some effort into it, though, getting sick of just lying around. While Lou half-heartedly pats at the balls of string and yarn, Sam works at the hematic string, soaking skeins of the infusion fibre in his blood, watching the fibres turn dark red in the process. Most everything he's made so far is red – maybe he could spice it up a little this time, throw in a little blue in there for fun. The result is still kind of dark hued, a sort of reddish purple, but it's different.

Following a guide the Cosplayer sent to him, Sam uses the finished, spun yarn to make a baby blanket for Lou – something they hadn't really been using, since she just sleeps on the bed with him. It might be a waste of yarn, since it's not like Lou really needs protection from BTs indoors, but… it's his yarn, he can do what he wants with it. And there's no such thing as too much protection, right?

He kind of regrets it the moment Lou starts chewing on the thing though because despite the fact that the infusion string, once inundated with the blood, doesn't exactly leak it… it's still his blood in the thing.

"Yeah, no more bloody baby blankets," Sam says, taking it away and replacing it with a normal, non-hematic scarf he'd made for practice. "There, Lou, you can chew on that as much as you want."

Lou mumbles at him and kicks her feet a little, half tangled in the scarf. She looks a little better, Sam thinks, a little less listless. Getting there, he hopes. "We'll be alright, Lou," Sam says, giving her a tickle through the scarf. "It'll be alright. We've gone through worse, right? And we're just fine by ourselves, yeah?" She kicks at his hand, and Sam smiles, holding his palm still for her to push against, to work her muscles.

Lou gets distracted by her toys soon after, and Sam's about to go back to the weaving machine, when there's a noise from the terminal, marking an incoming call. It's a new ringtone, though, not the Engineer, or the Craftsman, or even Ludens or the Musician. Not Deadman either, more's the pity.

It's fucking Die-Hardman.

"Shit," Sam mutters, falling to sit on Deadman's chair, staring at the monitor. He'd figured, sure, that getting on the network, and with Fragile, and Ben, and Deadman himself, it was only a matter of time, but… Shit.

He could just decline the call. Die-Hardman would probably get it and leave them well enough alone. Maybe. Probably not. Still he could try it, mute the system, go back to work… but on the other hand, it could be about Deadman. And if something had happened, if something had…

"Fuck it," Sam says, cards his hands through his loose hair, and then stands up and accepts the call.

It's weird, to see the guy without a mask – especially knowing where the fucking thing came from.

Die-Hardman looks at him and his shoulders square, slump, and square again, like the guy is on the verge of sighing in relief and bracing himself for impact. "Sam," he says, and it comes out as a sigh. "It is you."

"Die-Hardman," Sam says, cool.

"I – ah. I go by John, these days," the man says, giving him a wry smile. "John McClane."

"Right," Sam answers, wondering if it's another mask. Honestly, might be. Leave behind the stuff he did as Die-Hardman, the stuff he did for Bridget, pretend to be a newer, better man, all that shit. "What do you want?" Sam asks, suspicious.

"To talk, only to talk," the man says, and glances away from him – or from what he sees on his end, a chiralgram of Sam in his decidedly civilian clothing. "Things are different here, you know, and we're starting to go about things in different ways. Maybe you've heard about some of it? We're rebuilding old structures… looking into old laws, old rights, and how they were implemented."

Sam folds his arms. "Uhhuh."

"And it doesn't seem right, to rebuild a country on the back of a man who then deems it best to abandon it," Die-Hardman – or John, apparently - adds. "And I wanted to know – "

"You know I don't care about your country, didn't when I left it for the first time, and I don't now," Sam says. "The shit I did for UCA, I didn't do for the UCA. I did it because I was fucking lied to – and it's that I walked from. The fucking lies."

"… I see," the man says. "I know there were things done and procedures taken that were… manipulative. But it was in the interest of the greater good."

"Also a thing I don't give a shit about," Sam points out.

"But you do – just going from what you've done for preppers, both in the past and now, you do. Hematic clothing, Sam – it sends a rather clear message."

"Only if you're looking for a message," Sam says. "It's a product I can make, which people have need for. That's all."

"Is it really?" Die-Hardman, John, asks, smiling wryly, and pulling up a chair. "You've always talked a big talk about not caring, but your actions speak differently. I think you care quite a bit, but perhaps you prefer your circles a little smaller. Which is understandable and even admirable in it's own way, we should all –"

"What do you want?" Sam asks, not really interested in being monologued at. The guy had that habit, just making speeches his way, trying to talk him over into a grander way of thinking. Sam is really not feeling like listening now.

John draws a breath and then shakes his head. "Deadman has put forth a request for a reassignment – or, rather, a transfer. To your shelter, as it happens."

"Yeah."

The man in the chiralgram arches his brows.

"What?" Sam demands. "Did you fucking seriously call to question me about that?"

"You'll get no judgement from me, Sam," John says, almost kindly – it's kind of infuriating. "But with your… ailment, I wonder, do you know what you're getting yourself into?"

Sam stares at him, and he's for a moment tempted to just shut down the call there and then and call it a fucking day. The guy sounds sincerely worried, though, looking at him with what looks like honest concern. The hell? "The fuck is that supposed to mean?" he asks, uncertain.

"I know Deadman is the first person you've truly connected with in a long time, Sam," John says, slow and understanding. "And I am glad for that, at least. But I'm worried you might not have much in a way of frame of reference there, that you might not know what healthy relationships are like."

What. What? Sam shakes his head. "The hell are you talking about?"

"Sam," the guy says, looking a little uncomfortable. "You know Bridges private rooms are monitored."

Sam shakes his head. "Yeah, you people made it abundantly clear with all the breaches of privacy, yeah," he agrees.

"I know what happened, in Mountain Knot City – when your BB went off alignment, and Deadman came to take it for the operation," John says, and glances away. "This call is private, by the by," he says suddenly. "The President's private line, it comes with some perks – this call isn't being monitored, and there won't be a recording afterwards. It's completely secure."

"Right," Sam says, not getting it. "Comforting. What about Mountain Knot?"

"I know he extorted some – favours from you."

Sam just stares at him, his mind drawing a blank. Then. "What? Wait – you think we –" he stops there and then covers his eyes with his hand. Right, yeah, that. Fuck. He had figured that it probably looked – like something from the outside. Deadman definitely tried to make it look like something, in his own awkward way. Sam just hadn't realised that people actually bought it. Or drew this kind of conclusions from it. For fuck's sake.

Sam shakes his head, smothering an embarrassed groan. Fucking shit, seriously… "Here's a concept," he says. "It's none of your business."

"Sam," John says, earnest. "I'm only worried."

Sam looks up at him. He probably is, though how much of that is guilt, sincere care and how much of that is the need to manipulate the situation somehow… "I'm fine, thanks," Sam says, annoyed. "And it's still not any of your business."

"With your memory problems, you might not know what it's supposed to be like –"

"And you're the expert on that, huh?" Sam asks. "Because Bridget making you shoot Cliff, making you take the fall, putting you in a mask and making you erase your whole fucking identity, that's healthy as fuck, is it?"

That brings the man up short. "You… know about that, huh," John says, looking down at his hands.

"Remember it," Sam says. "Think about us BBs in our little pods. We can see through the glass. Remember being shot too. Being revived by Amelie. Remember you asking if I should be terminated too, remember all of it."

John looks at him and then hangs his head. "Shit," he says, quiet.

"Yeah," Sam agrees, tilting his head and then turning away, to glance at Lou on her blanket. She's sitting up, watching him while hugging D-Dog and – aw shit.

Sam pushes away from the terminal, out of the chiralgram range, and John looks up sharply. "Sam – Sam, don't go, please – we should. We should talk about this."

"Yeah, yeah," Sam says, knowing he audio would still pick up. "In a fucking moment."

"I don't know how much you know about what went down back then, but it was – it was a difficult time. The Death Stranding had only just begun, and we were all playing catch up – we didn't understand anything back then, not like we do now…"

Sam ignores him, crouching down to pick up Lou, who is all quiet, all worried. "Sorry, baby," Sam murmurs, kissing her cheek and cuddling her close. She must've picked up his tone of voice, or something. Not much arguing has ever happened around her, but even in the pod she never liked it, always going all quiet and still. Sort of – defensively quiet. "Did I scare you? Don't worry, everything's alright, nothing's wrong."

Lou makes an uncertain noise and tucks her head under his chin as Sam rocks her a little, rubbing a hand down her back. "It's okay, it's okay…"

"Sam?" John asks. "Sam – are you still there?"

Sam glances at the chiralgram, considering his options. He could just… walk away, shut it down and settle in with Lou. These past few days have been stressful enough, they don't need this shit. But if he got it just fucking over with, maybe he wouldn't have to deal with again. Right?

Sam draws a breath and then kisses Lou's head before carrying her with him to the chiralgram range, into John's view.

"… oh," the man says, his eyes widening, as Lou grips Sam's shirt collar, and Sam sits down on Deadman's chair.

"Yeah," Sam agrees.

"That's your… BB," John guesses, lifting his head.

"Yeah. This is Lou. Louise," Sam says, rubbing her back soothingly. "And she ain't real happy about her dad not being here," he adds, giving John a look. "So don't give Deadman any shit – we want him back here, and the sooner the better."

"… Sam…"

Sam looks away. "We're setting up a lab here, probably a couple, for Deadman, so that he can continue his work for UCA and all that crap. We're also still figuring shit out about BBs," Sam adds, a bit pointed. "Figuring out the fucking mess Bridget and you made."

"I see," John says, quiet.

"And don't you fucking make assumptions about our relationship. You have no right to question it," Sam says, looking away and refusing to be embarrassed. "It's so far the healthiest fucking thing I've had in my life, next to Lou, and if you mess with it, I am gonna come right up there and fuck you up."

John's brows lift at that and he blows out a breath. "I have no doubt you could," he says slowly. "But Sam, are you sure –"

Sam glares at him.

The man quiets down with a cough. "Very well, then," he says and sits up a little straighter, sighing. "If you're certain."

"I am," Sam mutters and looks down at Lou. She's giving him a look and Sam sighs – he lifted his voice again, shit. "Sorry, baby," he murmurs, giving her a little nuzzle. "It's alright, it's okay…"

John is quiet for a long moment, watching them, as Sam rocks the chair back and forth to help Lou settle. "So, I suppose asking whether you'd be willing to work for the UCA again is something of a moot point, at this stage," the man says and holds up a hand as Sam glares at him. "I won't. You've earned your retirement, Sam, and then some, and if that's what you want… I'll leave you be. There are others who would like to get in touch with you, however. Heartman, Lockne, a few guys at Bridges…"

"Yeah, I guess… I guess that's fine," Sam says, looking away. He had missed them too.

"Great," John says, a little more at ease now. "In that case, do you want me to re-assign your call ID?"

Sam glances at him, wry. "Really?" he asks.

"Just an offer," John assures. "I suppose we can do that later."

"Uhhuh," Sam says and leans back, arms securely around Lou. "So," he says, looking away, coughing. "How are things back at Capital Knot?"

John looks at him and then smiles, grateful. "Well, you might have heard that we have begun reaching out to what remains of our foreign allies…"


 

Heartman sends him a whole slew of his most recent articles, some classified and some not, concerning the Event that followed the connection of the Edge Knot City, along with a long-winded message about what had happened since, the things Sam had missed out on.

Lockne has taken to writing too, it looks like – she's done a whole treatise about the potential fate of Edge Knot. This one is completely classified, and Sam's a bit surprised it was let through at all, considering the fully civilian status of his shelter. It's about how, in all likelihood, Edge Knot was destroyed years ago, when Amelie first entered it. Going through the old audio files from Sam, she'd pinned down some mentions here and there, by Amelie and by Higgs, of all people.

"… so I figure that the terrorists never had Edge Knot in the first place," she writes. "That was a fiction Amelie made up, to cover for the fact that something happened at Edge Knot the moment she entered it. Perhaps a member of the expedition died and there was a voidout, or maybe it was just the Extinction Entity in Amelie breaking through, but likely the city was levelled by her actions, not by terrorists. Higgs and the Homo Demens only gained access to the city once Sam did, once the connection was made, and thus only acted as a scapegoat, taking the fall for Amelie's actions…"

Which doesn't make for a pleasant reading by any means, but it's a kind of… closure. Between Heartman, Lockne and probably Mama, they're putting some sort of explanation and understanding in to all the shit that transpired. Sam had missed out on it, striking out on his own as he had, but… it's nice, even if he's playing catch up.

It almost makes Sam feel sorry for Higgs, except the asshole nuked a whole city, so… he doesn't.

There are other things he's missed out on too. Not just the political stuff, which he doesn't really care about, or all the After Action Reports written about the whole westward expedition. There's also the thing they were actually trying to make happen, the thing everyone had been so enthusiastic about. The recovery of old knowledge, old data – old designs.

There's a lot of things that are being printed now, devices, vehicles, hell, just forms of entertainment, which people had lost. People are adding their old things and archives into the network, with thousands and thousands of pages of new information, or rather, old information thought lost. With every city, every settlement, every shelter, something lost is recovered, and people are starting to remake things they'd lost.

And damn, Sam is almost jealous of the porters these days. While he had to struggle along with the trike that stopped like a wall at every damn rock, they now got a thing called ATV, which moves much easier over the timefall-blasted badlands. Now that, he thinks, would've made his job easier.

"Looks like there's a bunch of old-timey kids toys too," Sam says to Lou, who is finally starting to cheer up a bit. "Shall we take a look?"

They're figuring out which they like better, toy vehicles or toy blocks, when they get another chiralgram call – this one much more welcome than the previous one.

"Daman!" Lou squeals excitedly, waving her blocks around.

"Deadman," Sam says, sighing with relief and quickly catching Lou before she can faceplant on the floor in her haste to get to the chiralgram. "Hey."

"Hello Sam, Lou," the man says, smiling. "Apologies for not calling earlier, there was too much work to attend to, and not a moment of nice, secure privacy."

"You don't need to bother with that," Sam says, shaking his head. "Die-Hardman knows. Or… John." Damn, it's going to take a while, getting used to that. "He even called me, and now Heartman and Lockne are sending me mails."

"Ah, I see," Deadman says, frowning. "If it was I who let the secret slip –"

"It's fine, how ever it got out. Not your fault," Sam says and goes closer to the chiralgram, so that Lou can try and grab at it. She makes some distressed huffs when she realises her hands go through it, and with a sad smile Deadman crouches down to face her.

"Sorry, little Lou, I'm not really here," he says, reaching a hand to boob her on the nose, intangible though it is. "But I should be with you soon. As soon as I can wrap things up here, I promise."

Sam smiles, watching them, and then lift Lou more securely in his arms. "How are things?"

"Better than I feared, worse than I hoped," Deadman says, glancing behind him like he always does, when about to talk about things he'd rather not be overheard. "I have been looking into the BB experiments and the ongoing projects still involving BBs. Sam – within the next month, there are three BBs… who are expected to expire."

Chapter Text

With Deadman's oversight, Sam begins work on what they end up calling the delivery room. Thankfully the room is already there, since they printed the space for Sam's scans, so it's mostly just printing equipment and getting them installed. The room ends up as a mixture of a lab, neonatal unit and whatever else Deadman thinks will be needed, with a whole lot of monitors and high-level scanners and whatnot. Most of it goes way past Sam's understanding.

It's only possible because with UCA connection come UCA resources. Lockne sends some, Heartman advises in other things, and a heavy-duty delivery from the nearest distro center, a truckload and a trailer load of materials, seals the deal. Apparently, with that connection re-established, Deadman had just gone to the president and asked for resources – and since Sam was involved, they'd been allocated, no questions asked. Well. Some questions asked.

"In fact, we now have a budget of resources to our name," Deadman says, while Sam works on installing the incubation unit in the delivery room. "Nearly ten tons of materials, twice a month, have been budgeted for our usage, on top of things people are willing to donate. With that, with the income from your hematic equipment, and my work… I dare say we can make something of this."

Sam, who'd just wanted a home, is feeling a little in over his head with the whole thing. Soon, the shelter wouldn't be big enough – there's only so much space under the hilltop. Eventually, they'd have to start either digging multiple floors downward… or start building upward.

"Never thought I'd be rich," Sam mutters and finishes plugging the unit in. "That work?"

Deadman checks the connection on his end – he's still in the Capital – and nods. "It looks good," he says. "And I dare say that after you're done printing the resuscitation machinery, we're good to get started with this, at least for now."

Sam swallows and nods, glancing over to Lou. She's sitting in a thing called a bouncy seat – another new-old discovery from days long gone. Lou's still getting used to it, but with a string of toys in front of her and clear view of Sam and Deadman's chiralgram, it keeps her entertained and snug for a while at least, while they work.

Deadman waves to the baby, and Lou kicks her feet happily, sending the seat, well… bouncing.

"You about done in the capital?" Sam asks, trying not to sound plaintive. It'd been days.

"Wrapping up last few things, and talking things through with Doctor Stall – she's taking over for me," Deadman says, turning to him. "Though obviously I will be still observing – technically, I've gotten both a transfer, demotion and a promotion, all at the same time."

"Really?"

"I will be overseeing a lot of projects I was managing before, that constitutes a promotion. But I am losing some of my responsibilities at the same time – it's give and take," Deadman says. "And with this new potential when it comes to handling BBs… I might very well be considered the head of a whole new field."

"Uhhuh," Sam says and takes a seat on the gurney, looking around the room. It looks like a chunk of a hospital, which is a bit weird with their living room just outside the door. "You know, it might not even work," he says. "The thing you're suggesting, me hooking into the BBs, giving them my… immunity or whatever."

"It might not, I grant you that," Deadman agrees. "But I believe we will both be happier, if we do everything in our power to try."

Sam nods, rubbing his hands together and then looking at his chiralgram. "And… what happens to the BBs if it does work?" he asks. "I – I can't keep 'em all, I got Lou."

"Some porters want to keep theirs – or at least have their spouses, siblings, other family members look after them," Deadman says, still watching and waving at Lou, obviously enjoying her smiles. "The others, I imagine, will go to adoption."

"Adoption," Sam repeats. Like with him.

Deadman looks at him. "People are having fewer and fewer children these days," he says. "The maternal mortality rate is the highest it's been in over two hundred years, and the infant mortality is right behind it. In light of that, many who would like to have children… don't. BB program is a rare exception in these rates. The waiting list for adoptions, I assure you, is high – and parent candidates are very carefully screened. If this works… the BBs will be well taken care of."

Sam nods, swallowing. "Alright," he says. "Guess that's… yeah."

Deadman smiles. "We will make it right," he promises. "Don't worry."

Yeah, well. Sam's gonna, anyway.


 

Sam gets more packets, himself. The Artificer sends him the finished hematic gloves, giving him a long list of improvements she thinks he could make – basically, ditch the soft faux-wool yarn and get some timefall proof synthetic fibre instead. The Cosplayer says pretty much the same and asks if, like, hematic leg warmers could work? Since BTs grab onto your legs. Maybe hematic pants?

The idea of people wearing his blood in their clothing is becoming a bit weird by this point, but hell… if it worked, then it worked, right? Even if Sam's starting to find it a bit creepy.

Sam also gets a shipment from the Craftsman – a selection of differently shaped cord cutters – and sends him one back – a couple bags of his blood. He's making a habit of filling a bag every night before laying down to sleep, and he doesn't use as many of them for the yarn as he thought. Not yet anyway. The Craftsman is apparently starting to send the cord cutters out and trade them with porters, which is bringing him more materials as payment, some of which he sends over to Sam.

People are really starting to get out there, killing BTs huh? It will never be enough, probably, there's more BTs than there's living people to kill them, but… it's definitely something. And as more people are going out, more stuff is needed – and the call for stuff that people find themselves lacking is getting louder. Trade is not just booming, these days – it's going past what porters can keep up with. Which eventually leads to what Sam has to admit is the best damn news he's heard in a while.

"We finally did it, Sam," the Engineer tells him excitedly over a call. "Me and the Junk Dealer have been working on it for the past couple of weeks, and I think we have it down now. We think we can make an autopaver with a PCC 3! We'd like you to take it for a spin – what do you say, how about making a road right up to your shelter?"

It's not like the old autopavers, though – this one is smaller, and so is the result. It can't fit two trucks side by side, only one, but even that makes one hell of a difference, when talking about the rocky terrain around Sam's shelter. Which is, actually, kind of funny.

"Selected this place because it was hard to get to," Sam says to Lou, both of them suited up and masked, as he treks around the hillside, trying to figure where to lay down the road. "Now I'm making a road right up to it. Ironic, I guess."

With the new autopaver, you need to actually lay down where the road goes, it doesn't come pre-calculated. Sam uses the track left by Fragile and her porters as a guideline, since it goes around the main BT zone, and then starts laying down the auto pavers. Two is enough to make a full road between him and the main road he built months ago. The process of building the road eats up a whole chunk of their metals and ceramics, of course, but… at least it will make the re-supply that much easier.

While he's at it, Sam also expands the shelter a bit more, by adding another wind turbine, a solar array, and a couple of water towers. It's a bit excessive at this point, but considering that the delivery room is likely going to be just one of many upcoming expansions, it'll likely come in handy.

"It's starting to look like something, huh?" Sam asks Lou, who is staring up at the freshly printed turbine.

"Mmh," Lou answers, secure in her harness. She sounds satisfied with the process too.

The autopaver schematic is going to change the country faster than anything else – short of the chiral network itself, probably. There'd be roads going every which way, to every settlement, every shelter. Soon, there would be no need for walking through rough terrain, and everyone could just take a trike or a truck. There's even talk of something like buses, that could transport people between cities. Now that sounds like damn progress.

"We're getting increased MULE activity because of it, sadly," John tells him later. "They're capable of using the roads too, and are starting to try and set up ambushes and blockades, anticipating porters going through with large cargo hauls."

"If the next words coming out of your mouth are something along the lines of Sam, we need you to get out there and deal with them, I'm hanging up on you," Sam says without looking up from the hat he's knitting.

The President of the UCA chuckles. "No. We are starting to patrol the roads, UCA and Bridges security personnel is even considering adding watchtowers along the routes – manned watchtowers, that is, to keep roads safe," he says. "Hopefully it will clear things up a bit. But you should know that roads leading up to shelters might end up leading MULEs to those shelters."

"I'll defend mine, and other Preppers will defend theirs," Sam says. "But thanks for the warning. I'll pass it on."

The chiralium still wells up in the atmosphere, spiking and relaxing. People still die, they still need to be burned or they turn into BTs. There's a voidout somewhere in the middle of nowhere – a porter, people think, or maybe a MULE. It's another hole in the world, but at least this time no one else was hurt. Life is starting to settle.

Sam waits, with Lou in his lap, for things to start feeling alright.

And bit by bit, they do.


 

"Express delivery for Sam Relief," Fragile says, over the chiralgram, her face masked but her smile still evident. "I think I just got it. Sam Relief, some relief? That's clever."

"That's not," Sam starts to say and then sighs. "Yeah, alright, fine. Whatever. You wanna come in?"

"I certainly wouldn't mind," she says, and with a shake of his head Sam unlocks the shelter, letting her and her large container inside. He's a bit disappointed it's not Deadman she's delivering this time, but… there's still stuff going on in the Capital, apparently.

Fragile goes through the decontamination process and then puts her outer suit and mask into the cleaner, before joining Sam in the shelter proper. There she takes a moment looking around curiously. "Oh, there are more things here. I like it."

"Your way of saying the place is a mess?" Sam asks while accepting the container from her, one hand on Lou's back as she rests in her harness. "What's this?"

"Something from Mountain Knot. I was up there, helping them set out a line to some of the preppers in the area and establishing an outpost for Fragile Express," she says, smiling. "Nothing dangerous, I promise – but it's very fragile."

Sam snorts, but takes due care, opening the thing. It's a – huh. "This is the thing the Medical Device Engineer made?" he asks, frowning. "The long distance treatment thingy?"

"I suppose – I don't know. They just said that you would know what it's for and what to do with it," Fragile says, shrugging. "I just carried the package."

Sam looks at her, and then takes out his phone, sending a quick message to Deadman.

His chiralgram appears almost immediately after. "Ah, so it arrived!" Deadman says, peering into the case. "I was hoping it might. In light of out planned ventures – and by leveraging your reputation a bit – I managed to secure the latest of these devices for our delivery room – in case of emergencies, you know."

Sam straightens up, Lou squealing delightedly at the sight of Deadman. "This is the thing you can use at long range, like you're there, even when you're not?" Sam says, suspicious. Deadman had considered one for his autopsy-related work, so that he could work from the shelter, but… for him to get one for the shelter… "Deadman…"

"Hm? Oh, it's not for me, Sam," Deadman assures quickly. "Thing is, I am no paediatrician, I know very little neonatal medicine so far – I am learning as much as I can, as quickly as I can, of course, but it's not my area of expertise. And situations might arise, when we will need a real expert on the matter. So far there are about five of these units in use, stationed at Mountain Knot, South Knot, Capital Knot and Lake Knot – as well the one the Mountaineer has. This is the sixth, and it was allocated to us, with some persuasion of course, to be used in the BB Delivery Program."

"BB Delivery Program," Sam repeats flatly.

"Just so," Deadman says, satisfied.

Sam blows out a breath. "Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself? We don't even know if it works the way you think. It might not – and then all this is a waste of time."

"I have every confidence it will," Deadman says, which makes Sam squirm. "And if it doesn't, then we can simply send the device along, to a station that needs it more. For now, however, I am sparing no expense in getting this right. If there is any chance of success, I am going to maximise it."

Sam feels a bit like there's something stuck in his throat. "Right."

"Yes," Deadman says, nodding. "Speaking of which – good news, Sam. I will be heading back home tomorrow. Everything is just about ready here, I am just waiting for a porter to arrive to take me. Granted, it will take me a few days to make the trip over, but… I'll be on my way, soon."

Sam's shoulders slump. Fucking finally. "That's – yeah. Good."

Deadman nods, giving Lou another little wave, and then disappearing in a snap of chiralium.

Fragile looks at Sam and Lou, while chewing on a cryptobiote. "You are so in love," she says sort of conversationally, like she's talking about the weather.

"Shut up," Sam says, embarrassed, and turns away, closing the case she brought, snapping the locks shut. "Go have a bath. There's a hot tub. Use it."

She smiles and turns to go. Sam shakes his head and looks down at Lou, who is pouting disappointedly to where Deadman had been. "He'll be home soon, baby. Isn't that great?"

"Daman," Lou sighs.

Sam smiles, stroking a hand through the tuft of her hair. "Say Dadman, Lou. Dadman."

She kicks her feet a little. "Daman."

"Daadman."

"Daamman."

Sam chuckles and leans his head down to kiss her head. "We'll get there," he says, amused, and then goes to take the medical device to the delivery room. Deadman could install it once he got back – Sam is not even touching it.


 

Fragile stays the night, and they talk about the porter routes, how they're quickly changing. A lot of people are making their own roads, connecting to the main road Sam built – which is now being called a highway, even though it apparently isn't. There's a whole network of roads being made, in the west and east both, and with them came the call for more and more deliveries.

"Used to be that there were trucks going in and out every day. Stocking stores and facilities, carting materials back and forth from factories," Fragile says as they sit in the kitchen, Lou fast asleep in Sam's lap and Fragile's cryptobiotes hovering in the air. "My father used to tell me about it – he was a delivery man before the Death Stranding. Said that it was the truckers that kept the country running."

"Mmh," Sam answers. "Guess we're heading back that way."

"There's demand for more things," Fragile says. "Have you heard about the economy initiative?"

"No, what's that?"

"They're thinking of bringing back the currency system. Or something like it – a money-based economy. They're saying it would expedite the growth of the country, in a way our trade and social credit based system can't."

"Hmm," Sam hums. "Thought we were in post-scarcity dystopia, or whatever."

Fragile shrugs. "Who knows," she says. "Things are changing. Faster and faster every day."

"Timefall still comes down. Voidouts happen, BTs are a thing," Sam says. "Those things aren't going anywhere."

"No, but people are learning to live with them, in a way they couldn't before. You showed them the way, laid down the path for others to follow," Fragile comments. "And this," she motions around them, at the shelter. "This is part of it too. You did your part, you got your reward, settled down in your own place and built a life. It's an ideal, that's enticing a lot of people."

Sam makes a face at that. Guess his name gout out fast, once UCA figured out who and where he was, huh. "So I'm a trendsetter. Great."

"The chiral network helps," Fragile muses and then looks at Lou, who is drooling a bit against Sam's chest. Her eyes soften a little. "It showed people that they can still be happy, in a world like this. Not just cooped up and stuck, not just scraping by – but happy. Thriving. Every prepper you've connected is working on something new and great and bigger. You've inspired people."

"Save me," Sam says with a sigh. "I get enough of that from John."

Fragile smiles, wider. "You've already become a bit of a myth, you know. The Deliverer. The Deliverer's luck to you. May you too do your part, be lucky, and get what you want and need at the end of it. You're any porter's dream and ideal."

… Goddamn, that thing was about him? "For fuck's sake."

Fragile throws her back and laughs at him, before popping a cryptobiote in her mouth, crunching down. "You should set up a coral aquarium in here," she says. "Get yourself some fresh cryptobiotes. I could show you how."

Sam narrows his eyes. "Are you the one that set up the little thing in my private room at Bridges?" he asks suspiciously.

"Cryptobiote a day keeps the timefall away," she says, smiling. "What do you say?"

"What, now?"

"I have nowhere to be for a bit, and I saw some corals down the hill. Why not now?" she asks. "Print a container and I'll fetch some."

Sam shakes his head. "You know what, sure. Why not."

He puts Lou to bed, and then he and Fragile work at adding a whole display into the living room, with a bunch of Seam corals in, carefully arranged by Fragile's delicate hands.

"They say," she says, while arranging bits and pieces of the coral. "That the corals and cryptobiotes think that they're still in the Seam. And they're half in and half out. That's why cryptobiotes float – they think they're still swimming."

Sam shrugs. "Could be," he agrees, folding his arms. Already, there's a couple of cryptobiotes floating around, even though Fragile didn't bring any – just having the coral there makes them appear. "And now my house has bugs. Great," Sam says.

Fragile smiles, fitting the last bit of coral into the arrangement and then backing away. "There," she says. "Moisturise it every now and then, and it should do fine. Maybe add a bit of salt water, if it looks sad."

"Sure, I'll do that," Sam says, eyeing the thing. Eating cryptobiotes does help with chiralium buildup, and though he's gone through the detox now… it probably wouldn't hurt, having them every now and then. "Thanks, Fragile."

She smiles, snatches up one from the air, and slips it into her mouth. "Call it my housewarming gift," she says and stands up. "Since you still haven't used your jump."

Sam shrugs. "Got nowhere I'd rather be than here," he admits.

She looks at him and nods. "That's a good choice."


 

Sam's like on hot coals for the last day of Deadman's journey, pacing back and forth in the house. He tries to distract himself, working on the weaving, on the yarn, before setting it aside to do some exercise, and then setting that aside to attend to Lou, and to then spend some time in the green house. Nothing can hold his attention for long, and he just keeps checking the time.

"Should've gone to get him from Lake Knot," Sam mutters to Lou. "He'd be here way faster." Never mind that they would've also seen him faster that way. "Ugh. Waiting is not for me."

Lou coos at him soothingly, which makes things a little better. It's still a long and restless wait, with Sam going from room to room, picking up a project, dropping it, and moving to the next one until he finally gives up and just sits on the couch with Lou, staring at the ceiling. Lou's starting to get a little sick of his shit anyway.

"See the sunset," Sam murmurs to her. "The day is ending. Let that yawn out… there's no pretending…"

She yawns obligingly, and nuzzles into his chest, arms and legs tucked in, forming a little ball. Sam smiles, nudging at her with his nose, and continues. "I will hold you, and protect you… so let love warm you till the morning…"

Lou's soon asleep, her breath coming out as even little puffs against his collarbone. She's still so small, finally about the age of a full term newborn. Mentally she's way ahead, of course, already trying to talk and everything, but when she's still this small

"I love you, Lou," Sam murmurs to her. "So damn much."

Lou snuffles in her sleep and then relaxes with a sigh. Sam does the same, glancing at the time on the terminal screen and then looking up at the ceiling. Shit, not even fifteen minutes had passed since the last he looked, this is going to take forever.

Sam's trying his best to doze off, hovering somewhere in between sleep and wakefulness, when the system finally lets off an alert about someone in the perimeter. Sam looks up and then with a groan sits up, holding Lou to his chest. A truck's driven up the road and right into the yard, parking in front of the shelter – and, at long damn last… Deadman's home.

Sam rocks Lou, still asleep, and unlocks the shelter, sending out his and Lou's chiralgram. "Welcome home," he says to the masked man, who's stretching his back with a groan. "Now get the hell inside."

"Coming, dear, coming," Deadman answers, amused, rubbing at his back. "Got some unloading to do first, I'm afraid, and then we will be right in."

Sam sighs, impatient, shifting his footing and rocking Lou. "I can come give you a hand," he offers.

"And wake little Lou up? Don't you dare –" Deadman hesitates as the porter who drove him in says something, motioning him to go inside. The porter has a BB pod with her, but that's somehow secondary. "Oh, that's kind of you – of course, yes, certainly. Thank you."

The porter gives Sam a 👍 with a grin behind her living cargo's back and Sam gives her the same, while Deadman heads inside, hurrying to the garage. Behind him, the porter shakes her head, amused, and then goes about unloading her cargo onto the cargo shelf.

Sam barely can stand to stay still, waiting for Deadman to go through decontamination. Once he has and is coming through, Sam suddenly doesn't actually know what he was waiting to do. Sure, he wanted Deadman there and preferably now, but now that he is, Sam just… What are you supposed to do in these situations? Sam has no idea.

So he just sort of teeters there, shifting his weight from one bare foot to another, uncertain and eager and hesitant, all at once.

"Well?" Deadman says, his mask and coat off, both thrown in the cleaner. He holds out his arms. "Come here then."

Oh, well.

Sam goes to him, fighting between the urge to avoid his eyes and to look at him, standing close enough to start something, but, uh… Deadman takes the decision from his hands, pulling him in, firm but careful with Lou between them. Sam goes a little tense at first  and then it's like he just deflates, his whole body goes loose with relief.

Oh yeah. Yeah, this is what he wants.

"Hey, Sam," Deadman says softly. "I'm home."

"Bout damn time," Sam mumbles against his shoulder, and doesn't move away for a long time.

Above them, the porter finishes unloading the cargo, Deadman's instruments and research materials mostly, logging in the delivery all nice and proper, before venturing down the stairs into the garage and coming to join them. Sam backs away with an embarrassed shuffle, and Deadman keeps his hands on Sam's waist, unrepentant.

"So," the porter says, glancing between them curiously and holding her hand on her BB pod. It activates at her touch, showing a tired looking infant, who doesn't even wake. "I hear you might be able to do something for my BB?"

Sam draws a breath, looking at Deadman, who smiles. "Well," Sam says, and looks down at Lou. She's just over two months out of pod, and thriving. Even thinking back to that day in the incinerator seems impossible now – to think that that could've been the end for her, for him, for all of it... "Yeah. We'll definitely try."

Chapter Text

The hill is just within sight, a dark shape against the night sky, marked by the lights of structures just on top. Just a bit more, and he'll make it.

"Hang in there, Jimmy," Ben murmurs, resting a hand on the pod, as he climbs the rocks of the hill. "A little bit longer, baby boy, we'll get there. Just hang in there."

The homestead has grown, it looks like. More wind turbines, and there's a new structure right up there, in everyone's view – timefall shelter, and another, a hoop shelter for trucks and such, it looks like. They've fenced off parts of the yard too, keeping people off the sharpest falls. It's nice, though Ben doesn't really have the presence of mind to appreciate it.

"Just a bit further," he mumbles, wiping the sweat from his eyes, and pushes forward. The system recognizes his ID, welcomes him in, and he can barely hear it over the pounding of his blood in his ears, as he stumbles in and activates the terminal. "Sam," he grunts, coughing. "Sam, are you here – Sam!"

The terminal activates, and instantly there's a chiralgram of Sam, appearing a little ruffled. Looks like he'd just stumbled out of bed. "Yeah, what – Ben?" he asks, pushing messy hair from his eyes. "Shit, man –"

"Help," Ben croaks, both hands on the pod now. "Sam, help – please – he –"

Sam's eyes widen and then he quickly reaches out of the chiralgram's view. There's a clunk, echoing, as the door opens, and the chiralgram fades entirely as Ben pushes through it, towards the entrance.

Sam meets him in the garage, jogging over. "When?" he asks, his attention immediately on the pod.

"Six hours ago – six fifteen," Ben says, letting him take the pod. "Hauled ass getting here, busted my truck, left my team behind – just – please tell me you can do something, please, anything – "

Sam peers into the pod, deactivating the screen. Inside, Jim floats, unresponsive, unmoving. "Come on," he says, waving him to follow. "Suit off," he adds, and leaves Ben behind, to stumble out of his suit and boots.

Ben leaves the outer layer on the garage floor, uncaring of the mess he's making, and hurries inside, after Sam. Deadman's up too, just as freshly woken as Sam by the look of it – he's barely pulled on a robe and is squinting at the light. "Ben Hancock?" the man asks, running his hand over his face. "What –"

"It's my BB, Jim – he went unresponsive, it's not autotoxemia, it's – he's unresponsive," Ben says.

"Ah," Deadman says, and then clasps him by the shoulder. "Come on."

The man leads him after Sam, out of the cushy and comfortable looking living room and straight into what looks like a sterile hospital ward, or a lab. Sam's already hooked Jim in a device that looks a lot like a stillmother unit, but obviously isn't.

"Got buzzing," Sam says, peering into the pod. "Deadman?"

"Working on it," the man says, waving terminals to life and bringing out Jim's lifesigns. "Looks like it was a cardiac arrest, I'm registering arrhythmia."

"Hasn't been too long, then," Sam says and glances at Ben. "You know how this works?"

"Heard about it, yeah," Ben says, wiping a hand over his face, shifting his weight nervously. It feels like he should be doing something, but – Jim's in better hands here. "I talked with Lee – she's got BB-26? Or I guess she's called Emily now, but –"

"Then you won't freak out when I do my thing, right?" Sam asks. "Because I gotta do it now."

Ben nods, shaky. "Yeah, yeah – go, go right ahead."

Sam nods and it's like watching a weird play taking place in front of his eyes. Deadman pulls out a gurney and Sam lies down, stripping out of his shirt as he does. There's an outlet on his stomach now, installed recently, judging by the looks of it – the tissue around is red and there are scars. As Ben watches, forcing himself not to ask, Deadman hands Sam what looks like a custom BB tether, which Sam hooks into the outlet on his stomach, wincing a little.

"Fuck," the man mutters, lying down on the gurney, grabbing his stomach around the lead.

"I'll get you an analgesic –" Deadman says.

"Later. The kid first," Sam says, and with a grimace Deadman nods, taking the cable from Sam's hands and turning to Jim.

Ben pulls his hands through his hair, anxiously shifting weight from one foot to the other, as Sam is hooked in and convulses on the table, his eyes widening, going glassy. He freezes there, still convulsed, staring at nothing.

In the pod, Jimmy isn't moving.

"What – what is that, what's happening?" Ben asks nervously.

"Flashback," Deadman explains, checking them both, pulling screens of both their vitals closer. "Whenever he hooks into a BB, Sam, being DOOMS sufferer and a repatriate, gets a sort of regurgitation of his own memories – they bounce back from the BB to him. It's a good sign, means that the BB's Ka is still there."

"Jimmy's soul is still here?" Ben asks, and it comes out as near sob.

"Souls linger," Deadman agrees, and then they wait for whatever's going on to pass.

After a moment, Sam comes to with a gasp. "Aw, fuck – hate that one," he groans, running a hand quickly over his eyes. "How's it looking, Deadman?"

"Looks good, or as good as can be expected," Deadman says, turning away and picking something from a side table. A syringe. "Are you ready, Sam?"

Sam draws a couple of deep breaths and then nods, holding out his arm, hand fisted so tight the veins of his arms are showing. He's got scars there, puncture marks from previous injections.

Ben swallows and hugs himself, feeling helpless and like he's in the wrong damn place, watching as Deadman administers the lethal injection. Sam takes a couple of deep breaths, his whole body straining, and then his breathing gets harder, his eyes start to stray, and then…

Flatline.

"Why the injection, why not an electric shock, the way Heartman does it?" Ben asks warily.

"Because the BBs cannot take it, " Deadman says, turning to Jimmy. "The lead will conduct the shock to them, you see – the thing is by necessity conductive, and the damage done to the BB would be catastrophic. Chemicals, however, aren't transferred, and Sam can shake off both in about the same time."

And then, before Ben can say or do anything, Deadman takes Jimmy's pod and cracks it open like an egg, easing the line between Sam and Jimmy out while holding Jimmy in one hand. God, he's so small, and so limp, and so pale. Ben makes a horrified noise, stepping closer, but Deadman stops him with a look and turns to Sam.

Jimmy is laid on Sam's bare chest, both of them dead, both of them still.

"Now, we wait," Deadman says and checks his old fashioned wristwatch. "It is usually less than five minutes."

It is, by far, the worst five minutes in Ben's life. There's constant whining noise in the background, two flatlined hearts sounding in unison, and it feels like the noise is burring a hole through Ben's head. He feels shaky, panicky, like he's been in an explosion – the run he took to get here, through a BT territory nonetheless, doesn't help. And the noise goes on.

Then the lights flicker, power going in and out. On Sam's chest, a little hand presses on a brand new mark, surrounded by edges of black.

"There we are," Deadman says, putting Sam's hands over Jimmy quickly. "Brace yourself, Ben."

"Wha –"

And then they're floating. There's a shimmer of power in the air, chiralium, like the activation of a Knot or something – everything goes weird in that close to the Beach way. Sam comes off the gurney, floating up, and Jimmy floats with him, almost coming off his chest, but Sam's hands hold him near. For a moment everything seems suspended in air, weightless, and then Sam coughs – and they all come crashing down.

Ben has just barely gained balance, when Deadman puts a kidney dish ready just as Sam turns to the side and begins throwing up tar. In his hands, Jimmy jerks and jostles and then begins to cry, wringing little hands and feet.

"Jim," Ben breathes, stumbling over and to his knees, barely daring to touch.

"Give it a moment," Sam croaks, still spitting tar. "Kid's a bit cold."

"Y-yeah," Ben says, amazed, while Deadman, like they've rehearsed it, picks up a heated blanket and puts it over the pair.

"There," the man says, satisfied. "Now the analgesic."

"Thanks," Sam says, lying back down with a heavy sigh.

In his hands and under the blanket, Jimmy, so small and so fragile, is crying and whining, fingers curled tight. Ben makes a noise and reaches for him. "Jimmy, Jim, hey, it's okay, it's okay, I'm here – I'm here," he babbles, and then lets out an incredulous laugh when the kid spots him, opening his eyes. "Hey, hey there, hey. You're okay. You're okay…"

Sam watches him with a smile, resting his hand over Jim and then closes his eyes.

Ben holds out his hand to Jim, who grabs a hold of his fingers, and oh, god, his hand is too small to even make it around. "Hey," Ben murmurs. "Hey there, hey, everything's okay, everything's just fine…"

Deadman comes back in, taking the blanket off the pair and smearing some sort of ointment on Sam's obviously irritated belly, before gently unhooking the tether between him and Jim. "I'll just cut and tie up the umbilical," Deadman says, turning Jim gently around and doing just that in snappy, well rehearsed motions. "There we go. You should be good to hold him now – against the bare skin would be the best. Helps the kid bond with your scent, among other things."

"Right, right," Ben says, and does as asked before taking Jimmy in his hands, careful, so, so careful. "Oh, god, he's so small…"

Jimmy coos and gurgles, letting out a little hiccup. Deadman goes away for a moment again and then returns, carrying something in his arms – a very sleepy infant, with a messy tuft of dark blond hair in a pale grey bodysuit. Sam hums, holding out his arms, and Deadman deposits Lou into them. Ben barely even notices.

He can feel Jimmy breathing, and his whole world condenses on the sensation. His baby boy is breathing. He's breathing.

"There," the doctor says, somewhere far away, brushing his fingers over Sam's hair, "All better?"

"All better," Sam agrees.

And it is.