Moreno didn’t weigh much -he looked solid for a man of his age, but once they managed to crack open his suit of armor and drag him out of it, it became apparent just how much life had eaten away at his body.
Hitting the cracked pavement tore a pained yell from the old man, but he bit it back almost immediately, always the fighter.
Johnson and Arcade fumbled at his body armor -he hadn't asked the man for help, he knew this in the foggy, addled way of a doctor too focused on his job to worry about pleasantries. But his hands were slick with blood already, and Johnson always had sharp eyes.
The cracked chest plates of combat armor got lifted off, and Arcade knew there was jack shit he could do about this. He'd known it already when he had heard the wheeze -the blood gurgling deep in it, so loud that he was wondering just how Moreno had not choked on it yet. The thermic lance had cut right through the old, softer padding between the abdominal plates and the metal belt of his suit, the wickedly hot blade melting the resistance and cutting its way to the body underneath. Stab wound like that, deep and large enough to have wreaked havoc on at least three major organs if one didn’t even stop to consider the blood loss and the burn damage…
Even as he was thinking that, Arcade still pushed on, getting the gauzes out of his kit -he’d barely pushed them in the wound to staunch the blood and they were already soaked, and there was nothing sterile enough that he could use to do a better job, of course; Moreno convulsed for a second, a wet, gurgling cough forcing its way out of his throat. Aspiration risk -but he still had to administer the TXA, and good thing he thought to grab that dose even though it was technically Julie’s last, then he could focus on the airways-
He was getting the injection site ready when Moreno slapped his hands away, albeit weakly.
“... No”, he gurgled, and when Arcade looked up from his bloody hands he briefly caught Johnson’s eyes before Moreno’s -the wounded man’s gaze was glassy but stern.
“Please, Orion, don’t start”, began the sharpshooter, but the other man mumbled a curse at him and grabbed Arcade’s wrist. His grip was shaking, but was still tight enough to make his fingers ache.
“There’s nothing to fix”, he breathed. “No camp to fall… back. No more Navarro. NCR won’t take us. Fo...llowers won’t take us. We all die, today… here. One … way or another.”.
“No way out but through.”.
He’d said his goodbyes to the gang back at the Lucky 38. Lily got him out of Hoover Dam and in New Vegas. Couldn’t extend the favor to the rest of the Remnants -not enough stealth boys around for that kind of company- but last he had heard of Daisy, she had managed to swoop in on the NCR prison escort and bust out a few of them. Johnson, Henry and Kreger got out.
No guessing at where Moreno’s body would be, though.
When they got back, him, Lily and Six, they found the others had packed them up already. Light packs, but filled to the brim with useful stuff. Lots of radiation meds, non-perishables, ammo. A tightly wrapped up package branded with the cross was the only indication that Julie had known where he was, but he refused to open it -no time, no more hurt to spare for that.
They had an army to beat.
Veronica hugged him so tightly he started to fear he might have to deal with a cracked rib on the way, and that was before Raul and Lily even got to him. He didn’t think it was possible at that point -oh, he learned to know the guy well, would’ve even called him a friend on a good day, but Boone just wasn’t a touchy person by nature: and yet, once the others were done, he did throw an arm over his shoulders too. Bit awkward since the only person who had any height advantage over him in the room was Lily, but he took it anyway.
“They’re doing you dirty”, he muttered, low, almost snarling. “I’m sorry.”.
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about, unless there’s something you really should tell us right now, like, I don’t know, First Recon waiting for us as soon as we get out of the door or something like that. Security was already questionable back when House was still a thing”, blabbered Arcade in response.
Boone chuckled darkly. “Yeah, it was. No surprises down there, though. I’ve checked. Twice.”. A beat of silence, then: “You’re really gonna do this.”.
Six had received a radio signal.
Better word would’ve been a call, even, if telephones had still been a thing, but alas.
They were just about done talking the Remnants into fighting. They talked contingency plans, escape routes, before Arcade would’ve needed to go and retrieve his gear. The initial plan had been to lock him down in the Lucky 38 bunker and hope the NCR didn’t look too close at Six’s reports to find their way down there by themselves.
Everyone knew it was never going to work, but nobody said it out loud. Not after it became clear that that was the only plan they had. Then, Six got the signal. A new plan hatched from there.
First, it was gonna be the Divide -a blasted out canyon with barely any breathable air left in it, and whatever was left of it was a scorching hot, perpetual storm. Then, a free-zone nobody really gave much thought about, considering the only thing it was rich in was things thirsting for blood; all the way through there, those mountains, then north to Broken Hills; then further north, until no more NCR.
And in the remote chance that there was anything left of him by that point, then: east.
No way to go through the southern Midwest without stumbling into the seething, raging remnants of the Legion. Zion was crawling with NCR and caravans and bounty hunters waving around leaflets with his likeness on it, looking for blood caps.
But someone wanted Six at the Divide. “You’re gonna be just another package”, he had smirked, a hint of maddened desperation behind his dark eyes. “I’ll smuggle you out of the Republic, just like an ol' stash of ‘shine. ‘S gonna be a doozy.”.
Sure, if this Ulysses’s of a mind to agree.
The Divide sat on the ruins of two cities -Ashton on one side of the mountains, and Hopeville on the other. Six had no idea who this Ulysses person was; only that he, apparently, had some beef with him. It was the kind of news that usually people took with at least a tiny bit of concern, especially when they involved mysterious rendez-vouses into recently bombed out wastelands; but, just like the bullet to the head, Six took it in stride.
“Used to be a mountain pass there, Cass said. Hell of a bad road -shitty weather all year round. She said she only ever knew of one guy who would take it -no other couriers, no caravans neither. Too bloody dangerous. ‘S all blasted to shit now anyway, but if there’s a way through the canyon still…”.
That’s my way out. No other way but through.
Back west, right towards the Bears’ maws, then veering north into “nobody really gives a shit about this” land. Disappear into anonymity, then. They just had to beat the NCR army, on its way back to California from the Dam, right around Primm, then skip the Long 15 through the irradiated hellhole.
Boone left them at Primm. The sniper had talked Six into letting him scout ahead -to warn them if he stumbled into any of the skeleton crew the NCR had left in the area, before pulling all hands on deck at the Dam. Divert them, if he could. “Reputation’s finally good for something”, he’d grumbled when he offered.
They said goodbye in the shadow of the burned out projection screen of the California Sunset Drive In, then moved on.
“Nice welcome. Could’ve used a rug”, said Arcade after a trek up the western hills, looking at the display in front of them.
The entrance to the wrecked canyon was through a blockade of piled up, rusted cars. The backdoor of a school bus was hanging open, quite literally, barely attached by a single, lonely hinge, creaking ominously in the wind -they could spy the other side of the blockade through the bus itself.
Written in red paint, on the scraps all around it, were messages. They looked to be all from the same hand, although written in different states of hastiness -a few words scribbled on on a car door, barely legible; a few more finely calligraphed questions detailing the nearby rockface; on a scrap of metal pointing west, declaring proudly in its own decadence, “The Divide”. The number six, viciously crossed out by a streak of black paint.
You can go home, courier -said the message posted right beside the entrance, written on a scrap of plywood neatly pushed up with rocks and stilts.
When his quip was met with no answer, Arcade turned to Six, watching him through his eye slits. No good, with his helmet in the way -no way to read what was going through his mind with the breather mask’s lenses on. He stood quietly, combat rifle in hand, head turning minutely as he watched the barriers.
“This guy really doesn’t like me”, Six muttered, at length, voice coming out tinny from the ranger helmet.
Arcade snorted. “Least he makes it clear.”. He reached over, elbowing him slightly -mindful of his suit’s metal bracers. “Hey. We’ll get through. Everything else fails, you can always try pulling another stunt like you did at the Fort”, he added.
Forcing the smile out felt like passing stones, and Six couldn’t even see it -but he had to have guessed. It was his turn to snort. “Overt flirtation will get you everywhere ”, he quoted. “That it did. Look at us -this one of the places you were picturing back then, love?”, he asked.
Looks like he didn’t manage to stop himself in time, then. Treating him - them - like a junkie coming off the addiction -slowly, slowly cutting back.
As a trained physician Arcade knew that to be a bumpy road, full of setbacks. He also knew he shouldn’t indulge, and waste all of his progress. But Moreno’s blood was still on his hands, and the imprint of New Vegas’ lights was still fresh in his eyes. He could hang on to it. Just a bit, just for a little while longer.
“You had me cut out a brain tumor with a rusty scalpel and an outdated Autodoc”, he replied, shouldering his own rifle -a parting gift from Kreger- to get started on the arduous task of fitting his pa’s suit through the bus door. “This… is a cakewalk in comparison.”.
As soon as the burrowing beast finally stopped twitching, half of its muzzle sloughed off thanks to Arcade’s blasts, Six collapsed in a crumple that would’ve made the envy of any fainting maid. The helmet’s speaker rattled out a sigh, and down he went, just like a sack of bricks.
ED-E started bleeping in alarm, zooming over the body of his passed out master, whiskers all askew in agitation. Arcade saw, drawing big, heavy breaths that felt steadily not enough through his own helmet’s filters, collected what little strength he had left and lifted his legs.
He gathered Six in his arms, the servos of his suit hissing to readjust to the added weight, and they retreated back in the overturned truck, right at the mouth of the overpass tunnel.
It wasn’t safe. By any means.
They hadn’t been safe one moment in the entirety of last week.
But that was the best they could do, and he couldn’t put this off any longer.
“I know. I know, you damn bucket of bolts -’s just rads”, he finally replied, voice changing to tinny to a croaking, almost unrecognizable sound even to his own ears as he slipped out of the suit mid-sentence.
It wasn’t safe. Six’s Pip-Boy was still crackling -cheerfully reminding them that they were still getting irradiated. But not as fast as before. Not as badly.
The path behind them was clear, and the things ahead were dead. They could stop, and rest.
He pulled out his kit with shaking hands, but by the time he started rolling up Six’s sleeve to administer the RadAway his training finally kicked in and stilled them. He hung the sac to a crooked piece of shrapnel that had punched right through the truck’ exterior, checked the time on his watch, and settled down for the wait.
He had pulled off most of Six’s body armor, made him comfortable with his head resting on his pack. Now he watched him sleep, face slack and pale with sickness and exhaustion.
It wasn’t just rads.
A week of next to no rest, paired with facing the terror of exactly what was truly dwelling in the Divide, had not done them any favors. Deathclaws and flayed-alive ghouls weren’t even the worst thing.
The land itself was hell-bent on killing them -with a sort of vengeful zeal, almost. The storms and the winds tore at his suit to the point that he had trouble lifting his legs -and Six didn’t even have servos to aid him in the matter. It was hot, unbearably hot. The currents tearing at them weren’t any relief -they were blasts of scorching hot air, raising dust and nuclear fallout thick enough that their air filters were constantly overheating and adding to the problem.
Adding to that the radiation made the magnitude of their problems clearer, and more terrifying.
Gannon senior’s armor was lead plated, but even that layer wasn’t enough to fully shield Arcade from the hidden, invisible fury that was being unleashed at their bodies. He knew it -could feel it in the way his insides were squirming, his muscles felt tight and weak. He licked at the back of his teeth and tasted a faint memory of iron.
Six’s armor was plated too, but not the way a power armor suit was. Not enough. He’d been feeling it more -he saw it, the way he stumbled when his muscles seized mid-step. They popped Rad-X like candy, and they still had enough to last a while…
… but how long was that gonna hold for?
Arcade let out a sigh, chest constricting uncomfortably, and placed his head between his knees. Outside, the winds howled and raged, unbothered.
ED-E bleeped sadly and hovered lower, closer to his master’s sleeping form.
“Are you even keeping watch?”, he asked it, out of breath.
The eyebot beeped indignantly. He did not pay it any mind.
Arcade was so tired.
When he next woke up, sunlight was streaming from somewhere deeper into the tunnel. His left arm felt cold. He grunted, confused, struggling to sit up, until he met Six’s eyes, watching him like a hawk from the other side of the truck.
They regarded each other, Arcade with rising confusion.
“You passed out”, Six mumbled into his scarf. His hair was matted and mussed, so oily by now that it looked a shade or two darker than what it used to be. His face was covered in imprints of dust that had wormed its way in from the gaps of his mask. Without his glasses on -Six must had taken them off while he was sleeping- the way his skin was mottled with dirt reminded him of the way the sun would look behind dust clouds.
He looked like shit.
Arcade grunted again and sat back down. He decided against lifting his arm to check his watch. “How many hours?”.
“I ‘unno”, was the reply. “When I woke up you were out already.”.
A glance to his left showed him that Six had used the same piece of shrapnel to hang another bag of RadAway, its tube snaking its way out down -to his own arm, most likely, considering how shitty he felt.
“Armor’s not enough”, Six continued.
Arcade heaved a sigh. “So is yours.”. A beat of silence. “Nothing to be done about it.”. When an answer failed to arrive, he reached out with his free arm, feeling the floor around himself for his glasses.
“Are we gonna die here, Arcade?”, Six asked, when he managed to find them.
Wasn’t that an odd question, coming from him.
He put the glasses on, sliding them on his nose -his face felt disgusting, clammy and packed with dirt and sweat. When he sat up again, and could see the look on Six’s face clearly, he assumed it also looked that way. “‘Course not”, he replied, automatically. “That… person. Ulysses. He’s still kicking, isn’t he?”.
“Could be a ghoul. Could be getting worser an' worser the deeper in we get, and we’d have no idea ‘til the rads stop going down with the bags.”.
Arcade winced. Six’s gaze fell to the floor, then.
He knew what it's like, theoretically, to die like that. You keep pushing on, trusting the rad meds to do their job, and it seems to work, for a while. So you go, and you go, and by the time you realize you’re screwed, it’s too late. The rads don’t go down with the meds anymore, no matter how many doses you give yourself. You slowly cook from the inside, body churning and turning on itself as the rads wreak havoc on your system. Loss of consciousness usually doesn’t occur until many hours in the process.
It’s not pretty.
“We could go back”, Arcade offered, hesitantly, feeling foolish even before he was done speaking.
The trek back would cost them the same amount of rad meds they’d already used up, if not more. There were things on their trail -the overpass door was the only thing keeping them out, but for how long? They both saw the earth move, quake with something hissing at their scent. They had to keep moving. They just both knew that backwards was not an option -not at the moment, not anymore.
Six still seemed to want to humor the thought, even as unlikely as it was. Six never turned back.
“Wouldn’t that be something”, he murmured, still, a distant look in his eyes.
No way out but through.
Six sounded so sure -so different from a few hours before, when they sat in the back of that wrecked truck and shared a meager meal of brahmin jerky and warm water.
Ulysses’ signal had reached them again at the exit of the overpass, telling stories about the Divide. Arcade knew of it, in the far, sort of saddening but not quite way one knew of a great tragedy that didn’t hit them directly. People lived there, in Hopeville and Ashton, before the explosions happened. Nobody really knew why -Old World technology gone haywire, they assumed. The settlers didn't have any way of knowing, back when they had first set their camps there, just what was lying in wait under them.
They'd seen them. On the way through the military base back in Hopeville. The ground had been disemboweled over it by the blasts, exposing the silo base resting under it as if it was part of its natural guts. The launch silo looked slightly crooked when they saw it, the way a child would accidentally knock over a sandcastle with a misstep.
But inside it, being worried over by hovering eyebots mindlessly fixing two centuries of wear, the warhead was still there. Resting. One of them -and according to the terminals they had found so far, there were many more. Sleeping under their feet, the capsized skyscrapers, the storms. Just waiting for something to activate them.
Ulysses had pointed his finger at Six.
Metaphorically, of course.
"You knew what was coming, as sure as I know what’s coming for you.".
“He’s wrong, ’Cade”, he was insisting now, stomping past ED-E to the edge of the crumbled overpass. The eyebot moved meekly out of his way. He stopped there, looking out at the Divide -what was left of it.
The yawning skeletons of the Old World. Nothing left alive but what the radiation could feed -monsters that were once men, and creatures twisted by it beyond recognition. A smoking, crumbling nightmare, destroyed and destroying because it was in its nature to do so -invisible fires, Ulysses had called them, burning away at themselves, devouring and twisting anything they found in their path.
“I’m just a courier”, Six continued. “I didn’t… I didn’t make this. I didn’t make any of this. I didn’t… do this”, he insisted, an edge of desperation finding its way into his voice. “I only… carry shit, Jesus. I don’t… I don’t build cities, an’... an’ I certainly don’t nuke people!”.
“I know”, Arcade soothed, mindlessly, walking over to him. He reached out, placing a steadying hand on Six’s shoulder. He flinched, but he let himself be herded away -further inside, back where the pavement was steadier. Back on the road.
Arcade thought of the warheads, back in Hopeville’s silos. Sitting there, resting, waiting. He saw them again, clearly in mind’s eye, just waiting for someone with the right codes. ED-E whistled a cheery tune and tried to catch Six’s attention as he ambled forward. He knew, intimately, that both of them had just had that same thought.
As they pushed forward, finding their way through the rubble to Ashton, however, Arcade also thought of something else.
The tides of war changing, following Six’s messages. Late night after late night spent talking to the robot -the other one, Yes Man. Pawns falling, one after the other, either to their death or into place, as the robot gathered its hand and waited. Rallying, carrying words and people to one side of the barricade to the other -it had worked with his people, too, that bit. He offered them himself. Then, the army of securitrons rolling over the Hoover Dam.
He thought of Fortification Hill.
Was it truly so implausible?
Arcade wasn’t always glued to Six’s side, no matter what Raul or Cass liked to think or giggle about. Nosy jerks.
Arcade had things to do. Patients to visit, stuff to restock, shoulders to lend when Emily or Julie were just too overworked to deal with all of it by themselves. He needed some rest, as well, sometimes. He was good, but not that good.
(He really wasn’t.)
Adventuring with Six was fun (yes, fun, despite all of his griping) but a lot of work for a combat medic. Which, technically, he wasn’t. His medical training was definitely getting a bit more stretching than his standard fare -and so was his combat training. But that was the extent of it.
He didn’t mind. He had work -but when he could, if Six came calling, he would follow.
They slept on a rocky rise overlooking the Colorado river -some deserved rest after a long day of trudging through the desert, but at least it had been quiet. They were tired, but not that tired. They worked up another sweat, and by then neither of the two had any energy left to move apart. Arcade clearly remembered falling asleep on Six’s shoulder.
The next morning, Six was smoking, sitting slouched on a rock, when he caught his eyes just as he was waking up.
He smiled around the cigarette. “Gonna be a good day today”, he said.
“You turned to soothsaying while I wasn’t looking? Y’know how I feel about that kind of stuff” , he replied in a mumble. Mornings were not his forte, but it was hard to keep a grumpy facade around the -his, courier.
“Nay. But I’ve got a good feeling”, Six said, voice turning rough as he stretched. “Today the Caesar dies.”, he declared loudly, smoke puffing out from his lips. Arcade snorted. “I know, I know. Just trust me, ‘Cade”, he insisted. “Trust me.”.
And Arcade did just that.
He trusted him when they walked right up to Cottonwood Cove. He knew of Vulpes Inculta’s invitation, of course. Hadn’t been there for it, but he’d heard the details from the others. Six didn’t bring out the mark of Caesar to the guard at the dinghy, though -the legionnaire just let them both in and waved the boat off.
He trusted him when they walked up the gate to Fortification Hill, ignoring the sneers of the legionnaires they passed, the wails that followed the harsh whip-cracks he could hear from behind the palisade wall. His heart had started to sound like the fluttering of a bird trapped behind his ribcage, but he kept his anxiety symptoms in check.
Or so he thought.
When they walked into the tent sitting at the top of the hill, followed closely by the gaze of a man in a checkered suit tied to a pole in the sun, Caesar’s back was turned, bent on his war table. The man standing next to him -younger, with black hair striped with silver, looked up and offered the same derisive sneer the other legionnaires had showed at his sight.
“Is this the slave doctor you bring us, profligate?”, he mocked, as Caesar turned. “He looks green.”.
Considering the way his heart rate had suddenly spiked, Arcade doubted that. If anything, he was probably looking as white as the bones he’d seen left hanging, forgotten, on a few crosses up on the way to the Hill.
“He knows his stuff”, Six told him, cheekily.
“Quiet”, Caesar barked, interrupting the bickering before it could start; watching Arcade the way a lesser man would watch a particularly offensive pile of dirt. “You, doctor, will come with me. Lucius”, he continued, turning slightly to the man in question. “Pay the profligate. No bargaining.”.
“Now, now, there’s always room for…”.
They were climbing their way across the ruined overpass, crawling through yet another blasted out bus carcass, when the whole thing lurched .
Arcade’s first instinct would’ve been to yelp and fall flat on his ass, but the armor’s speaker didn’t pick up on his tiny sigh of surprise and its stabilizers kept him upright. In front of him, Six threw out an arm, signalling to stop, and looked up.
The roof of the bus had caved in slightly where the thing had impacted with it. Rainwater poured in from the cracks -it had been storming, heavily, all day. Heavy breathing, then the wet sound of maws opening -he could see it in his mind’s eye, the tongue slipping out to sniff the air.
The overpass was crawling with them. Infested, almost -a good way of hiding from the things below, if what Ulysses had told them about the burrowing monsters was to be believed. It made sense that even a deathclaw would want to put as much distance between itself and them as it possibly could.
The beast moved, clawed feet thundering on the bus’s roof, until it slunk down the front -only a few paces away from them. By the distinct lack of roaring and dismemberment, it hadn’t found them -yet.
But it would, and soon. The bus’s side was… just not there anymore. It would’ve only needed to circle to it, before trapping them inside and have its way with them. The bus’s structure was so flimsy that the beast’s distinctive stench -something metallic, although completely overpowered by the odor of decaying meat and blood coming from its maws- quickly found its way inside, not dulled in the slightest by the helmet’s filters.
No good, no good. Six fought like a demon -but a deathclaw in close range was lethal, and they didn’t even have the element of surprise on their side -no way to prepare the terrain for a full frontal assault neither. Not enough time, not enough explosives -and who in their right mind would place mines on a crumbling overpass hundreds of feet away from the ground, anyway?
If only they could put some distance between themselves and the beast…
Movement caught his eye on his left, and he saw Six slinging his combat rifle from his shoulders, hands gripping it so tight the handle creaked. The thing wasn’t an automatic weapon -long barreled, no spread at all, a good punch for its weight but not nearly enough to drive a deathclaw back. No good.
A low rumble, then the air flashed -lighting strike, followed by the deafening sound of thunderclap. The deathclaw grunted and whined, retreating a few paces back, shielding itself from…
… the light , of course.
They had pulled a flare gun from one of the marked men’s corpses a few days before -a thing more rust than gun, at that point, but last he had looked it was loaded, and they had both seen the flayed ghouls fire them at the burrowing things. Bright lights, in the darkened days of a sun obscured by nuclear fallout, were repulsive to the dwellers of the Divide.
Six had it in his pack.
Before he could gesture to him, do anything to try and communicate to him in any way, another thunder rolled in; when the flash died off and his helmet’s night vision came back online, the deathclaw poked its massive head into the blasted out trailer and roared.
They both moved -as the beast charged in, arms flailing. Six ducked low, rolling to the side, then dove out the bus into the rain with a yelp as he hit the pavement hard.
No such luck for Arcade. His armor was light -lighter than any suit of Brotherhood, NCR or even ex-Enclave armor could hope to be, after his pa’s adjustments; but he was still never going to be as agile as an unarmored combatant. One of the monster’s claws caught him in the middle as he tried to push his way through, pulling him back inside and against the other side of the bus, sending him flying. He hit the wall with a rattling crash, metal against metal, but the cushioning of his helmet saved his skull from taking the brunt of the hit.
His grip on the rifle was still strong, even through the daze, and he aimed it up as the deathclaw climbed in after him, raising his claws for another hit. The superheated blasts of plasma charges hit it right in its vulnerable belly, changing his roar from threatening to shrill as the beast curled in on itself. It took a few steps back, snarling in pain and rage, as Arcade had to waste a few precious seconds to swap out the dry fusion cell.
A yell suddenly caught his attention over the roaring of both deathclaw and rain, muzzle flashes splitting the darkness for a few scant seconds outside the bus. The beast growled and turned, disturbed, as Six finally managed to catch its attention.
No good. Stupid move.
Arcade wasn’t faring better than him by any means, but at least, at the moment, between him and the mutated reptile there was still a solid three-inches of modded Tesla steel. Six had nothing but a suit of sturdy combat armor -good in a firefight, but barely able to take a few hits from a well placed bumper sword without cracking under the pressure.
The muscles behind those claws packed a hell of a heavier punch than a bumper sword could’ve ever dreamed to have.
The deathclaw moved away from the entrance, having apparently decided to go after the meal that didn’t come in a tin packaging first.
Arcade scrambled up, hydraulics hissing to keep up with his fevered movements, jumping down from the bus just in time to see the monster ducking low to avoid another volley of bullets, ramming Six with his wickedly curved horns. ED-E bleeped furiously as the beast collided, dragging the courier with it, but its electric charges bounced off harmlessly against the reptile’s thick hide, and the man was thrown like a ragdoll, crashing a few meters ahead on a blasted out car. His pack had been torn from his shoulders by the ragged horns, contents scattering all over the overpass.
“Goddamn you! ”, he yelled, speakers crackling at the volume. The deathclaw didn’t pay him any mind, of course. Arcade wasn’t even sure who he was talking to.
As the beast advanced to the unmoving form of Six, barely bothered enough to try and swat away ED-E, Arcade scoured the overpass, feverishly looking for the damn flare gun. Six always lugged way too much crap with him, and always found a way to cram more in that stupid pack of his -how could a man have so much shit around-
There. A glint, not too far from him, the rusted barrel of the gun, made slick by rainwater. Now to hope that in his great wisdom Six had not unloaded the damn thing before putting it away.
He lurched forward, and oh, by the way the air left his lungs in a rush, adrenaline was starting to have trouble keeping his brain off the pain. He could imagine, quite vividly, what kind of bruising was forming where the beast’s claws had caught his midriff; and if it was already hurting that bad…
He pushed forward regardless. Without the armor he would’ve certainly stumbled, blinded by pain, but the suit didn’t let him. He gripped the gun just as the deathclaw finally noticed his pursuit, turning to watch him, almost as if curious.
Arcade didn’t know the first thing about operating a flare gun, but, well. A gun was a gun, wasn’t it? So he aimed, and squeezed the trigger.
The kick of such a small weapon was insane, and the powerful grip of the suit was the only thing that prevented it from flying away from his hands. He threw it to the ground anyway, useless by now, and unslung his rifle from his back in a quick, almost practiced movement.
The flare hissed malevolently as it flew through the glowing rain, burning bright and red, startling a loud yelp from the deathclaw; but nothing was louder than its screams when the shell hit, lodged itself deeply in the beast’s thick hide, and caught it on fire.
The roars were unholy as the monster was quickly engulfed in flames. The rain didn’t seem to help in the slightest -the marked men must’ve had done something to either the gun or the shell, modding it so it burned fiercer. The deathclaw flailed and howled, sending ED-E careening almost over the edge of the overpass with a blind hit -Arcade had only had a few seconds of relief from having hit the mark that spectacularly, when he realized that a flaming, blindly enraged deathclaw was an even worse threat than a regular one, and that it needed to be put down fast .
His rifle was still fully loaded, so he sprung forward once again: he didn’t have many shots in a single fusion cell with that weapon, and he had to make sure that every hit counted. As he got closer and closer, every swing of the enraged beast left behind a scorching gust of air that he could feel clearly through the armor’s filters. The stench of burning flesh came right after, making his eyes water.
It was hard to aim at its weak spot with the way it was flailing, so once he was close enough to ensure he was going to at least hit without missing he started firing away, uncaring at what exactly got blasted as long as the plasma bolts found their mark.
That startled a new cacophony of roars from the dying beast, as the hits from the blasts added to the burn damage. It turned, blindly charging towards his general direction, the smell of decay and burning flesh filling Arcade’s nose and mouth as it thundered closer.
But as the last shot found its way into the softened, charred meat of the deathclaw’s throat, the beast eventually stumbled, its maddened charge slowing to a stop until it toppled over, coming to rest with a thunderous crash just a few steps away from the cement barrier Arcade had crouched behind. Silence didn’t fall, as he was sort of expecting to -the flesh sizzled and popped as it kept merrily burning away, armored scales cracking open under the heat. The glowing rain kept falling down, steadily dosing them in more and more radiation.
Six hadn’t gotten up yet, but the pitiful groan he let out was proof enough that he was, somehow, still kicking.
“I gave you his head on a silver platter -literally!”, Six snarled, tone incredulous -uncomprehending, as if he couldn’t quite get what exactly Arcade thought was wrong.
“And then what?!”, was the reply Arcade tried to come up with, voice shrill, still barely able to breathe right through the panic. Behind them, in the distance, Fortification Hill burned. Not all of it. But Six didn’t do subtle, and if he had to deal a bit of collateral damage to get his way, then so be it: that was his usual to-go plan, anyway. “How… How exactly was I supposed to know that… that that , that all of this, was supposed to be part of your master plan?!”.
Sitting on a bench of the stolen dinghy, Benny chuckled quietly to himself. Six sprang him too, when he had come for Arcade. He cut the ropes on his hands with a quick gesture and dragged him forward -never letting him out of his sight. Trusting that Arcade would follow behind.
He did, the damned fool.
Now, Six turned to the sound, belatedly, as if remembering something just then. At the sudden quiet, Benny looked up from his shoes -dirty and dull, a far cry from the polished shine the Tops usually requested-, and the courier pulled out his handgun, aimed, and shot him right between the eyes. Arcade jumped, the sound tearing a yelp from him before he could suppress it.
The man crumbled, sliding off the bench on the ground, blood already pooling thick under him.
“I told you to trust me”, came Six’s voice, through the fog. Arcade couldn’t stop staring at the exit wound on Benny’s skull -unable to bring himself to answer for long enough that the courier’s hands came up to his face, forcing him away from the sight and down on another bench.
Boone, manning the boat, had at least the decency to look away.
Six’s hands gently moved him away from there, too. His face, when he was finally forced to look at it, was splattered with soot and blood. None of it was his. “‘Cade?”, Six mumbled, softly, black eyes searching.
Arcade heaved a sigh. His thoughts were still swirling -murky, seething, betrayed. “I thought you had left me there to die”, he replied, eventually. As if that was really the problem.
Six snorted. “You know me better than that.”.
Something dark surged in him at that point.
It wasn’t the first time he had felt it, too. When a girl, no older than fifteen, died attempting to deliver the child her rapists had put in her, and they couldn’t help because there just wasn’t enough TXA left in the world for a hemorrhage that massive; when an old man was left at their doors, legs broken by the loan shark's goons he couldn’t pay off anymore; and when they told him no surgery could even put them right again, that thought got him crawling through camp at night to dig out a gun from the stash and end things his way, painting the side of the tent with his brains; when they lost track of a recovering addict, and eventually found her back in an alley in West Side, alone, choking on her own vomit as her last overdose’s throes eventually took her.
All those times, and more to count, a dark, blind beast had surged behind his ribcage. Rage, unbidden; a sentiment he couldn’t allow himself to wallow in, especially with his role as a Follower. He was one of their oldest -and wasn’t that something to not dwell on-: he couldn’t afford himself to fall prey to it, no matter how upsetting the circumstances. He wasn’t Julie, by any means, he wasn’t the beacon everyone looked to in Freeside when it came to tell right or wrong or even slightly morally reprehensible. Hell, his bedside manners were atrocious, for starters. But he was still Arcade Gannon, goddammit.
The same helpless, burning feeling rose up again, clawing at his throat, sitting uncomfortably behind his teeth. It set him on edge. It made him want to do things. He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw until his gums hurt. Six’s hands on his face were sticky, heavy -a weight suddenly intolerable, making him feel crowded, exposed.
He wanted to slap them away. He wanted to scream, stomp, punch him, grab the man by the back of his coat and drown him in the Colorado, for having had the gall to do that to him, for making him watch -the crosses, the slaves, the children, Lucius’ sneer as watched him operate with nothing but a scalpel and an outdated AutoDoc software and still do better than they could ever hope to achieve with their enslaved witch-doctors-
-his back, as he walked away from Caesar’s tent a few caps richer without him.
But he pushed it down. Swallowed down the rage, the hurt, the beast once again, as he always did.
“You don’t, if you think that I was going to kill a man you put under my care just because I could”, was what he ended up saying, instead, fixing his eyes into Six’s.
The courier sighed and looked away. “Of course.”. A beat of silence, then his hands slid off his face. “It doesn’t matter -you did good, Arcade.”.
Arcade could lie to himself all he wanted -he hadn’t saved Caesar’s life, or stomped down his rage towards Six, out of some kind of misguided hero’s complex. By wasteland standards he was an old man, and yet he had done nothing but prove again and again just how much of a child he was. Nothing but a coward, playing the part of a better man -and doing a shit job at it.
It didn’t matter, in the end. Six made it so. Whatever his grand plan had been, to play both the NCR and the Legion, it still worked out: he made it work, despite Arcade’s blunder. And when he finally played his hand, when the battle was over and the Legion was burned to the ground, when the army of securitron rolled over to the Dam like the end credits to a bad movie-
-in that moment, Arcade had never felt more unimportant.
The road to the Ashton’s missile silo had been fucking miserable enough already. They were getting too low on medical supplies to even manage the bruising left behind by the deathclaw encounter, so every pocket of resistance they had found on their way had to be dealt with carefully, meticulously slow. Save ammo. Don’t get hit. Don’t get hurt -not more than what you already are. Go slow, go for stealth kills when possible -sneak around the rest. That upped their time exposed to rads by magnitudes, and distanced the sessions in which they could attempt to slow down and dose themselves for sickness more, and more.
Arcade had forgotten what it felt like, to not be sick.
He didn’t need a mirror to know he looked like shit under his helmet. They were in so deep the sun nor the moon were even bothering to rise anymore, cloaking them in constant, murky near-darkness. His eyes strained against the night vision offered by the helmet, and the only reason he didn’t needle himself like a junkie against the constant migraines was that he knew he needed to keep his mind sharp. His reflexes were fucked already -so were Six’s, who wasn’t faring any better-, but he could at least try to get a shot in right.
At night, or what they supposed was night, when it wasn’t his turn to keep watch and they were sheltered enough for him to dare slipping out of the suit, when his muscles would painfully seize with radiation sickness and exhaustion, it was hard to keep his mind from Ulysses’ words.
They weren’t even directed at him. Six hadn’t been in a talking mood for… a long time, now. He wondered, sometimes, if he even thought about what the other courier was saying to him, when he spoke though ED-E speakers or the tapes he had left behind.
God knows he did.
As radiation wreaked havoc on both their systems, he found himself thinking, sometimes, as he watched Six’s dark shape amble forward, long legs loping in his usual, almost uncaring shuffle: this could be all your fault.
They found the end of the road at a caved-in tunnel junction. The mountain range wasn’t done with them yet, though. The way was up, now, and so up they went. Ropes were a flimsy thing in the storms that wracked the Divide, hard to keep a grip on with how they tended to snake their way out of their hands at every gust of wind. It took them an entire day, with barely any rest -Six found a ledge they could wedge themselves in, for a time, and give some rest to their shaking arms and legs. They didn’t speak. Arcade got his helmet off, got the canteen out, plunked the purification tablets in, watched them fizzle absently. Once they were done, he reached out, letting Six take a long first drag before drinking himself. He tasted ash and metal.
Once they were finally done climbing that godforsaken hill, they found that there was nothing waiting at the top except for the remains of a blasted out room. Barely two walls, no ceilings, no door. A console had survived, somehow, embedded in the sturdiest of the two walls in front of them, built as it had once been in the rock face. It glowed faintly, miraculously still active.
The only door left was to their right, leading deeper into the mountain's guts. Before trying the console, Six tried to force it open -even had ED-E give it a zap, in an attempt to bypass the lock.
No such luck. Most screens on the console were blasted out, but a small terminal read, on a screen so broken it barely managed to stay on for a few seconds before starting to flicker hopelessly, that the facility was sealed and was gonna stay that way until the “launch sequence ended”.
It wasn’t hard to guess what they had been trying to launch, before the first nuclear apocalypse hit.
“No fucking way”, wheezed Arcade, walking away from the console. The start of a crazed laugh started to bubble its way from his throat. “No. I’m done with this. Done, you hear me?”, he added, raising his voice as he slipped out of his suit, exposure be damned. He didn’t even know who he was speaking to -Ulysses wasn’t interested in whoever Six had deemed necessary to drag along with him, and God certainly wasn’t in the mood for listening.
Six stood at the console, as if staring at it would somehow make it crack under the pressure and reveal all of its secrets.
It had none. It just wanted them to pull a lever, and launch a goddamn nuke.
“We ain’t climbing down from here -’s just too steep”, he started, voice tinny from the helmet. “We can’t go back-”.
“I don’t care!”, Arcade yelled, hands flying to his hair, so dirty and matted it felt wet under his fingers. “I don’t give a shit anymore, we are not launching another fucking nuke, Six. Someone has to draw a line somewhere, and... and if it’s not gonna be you, then it has to be me.”.
“C’mon ‘Cade, we ain’t even sure the thing’s gonna go out, this place is wrecked already-”, Six insisted, tearing his helmet off, looking as ghastly as Arcade felt. The bags under his eyes were black enough to look as if they’d been drawn on his skin with markers; radiation burns splotched the skin around his lips, blistering in a way that sure looked painful. The bruising from the deathclaw fight marked half of his face black and purple, and an eye was still swollen shut, red and inflamed.
He found out, in that moment, that he didn’t really care about it. “What, you wanna go and risk doing it all over again then? Wasn’t the first time enough, Six- Courier?”, Arcade snarled, turning to face him.
“There ain’t nothing left here anyway! There’s no-one to kill no more!”.
“How do you even know where it’s gonna go? ”, Arcade demanded, exasperated. “There’s barely a screen working in that thing and it’s not reading coordinates to me. How do you know what’s gonna get hit? And what if that fucking warhead is too damaged to even make the flight -what if it explodes where it’s not supposed to?”.
Six seemed pensive, but just for a second. “Well… I s’pose we could get hit, ‘f the damn thing goes off underground”, he conceded. “But if it gets the doors open… we could run inside, thing’s dug deep down the mountain… we should be shielded enough-”.
The laugh finally found its way beyond his lips, and for the first time in a matter of days Six showed some emotion, looking startled as Arcade erupted in a fit of helpless giggles before screaming: “What the fuck do I care if we get blasted?! What if it explodes over California? What if it was meant to take the long way around and goes off around Vegas? What of people , Six?! What if whatever’s supposed to hit is still there?!”. As he spoke his volume raised and raised, until he felt his throat scrape and constrict painfully around every word. “Would you nuke a thousand, tens of thousands of random Chinese assholes if it meant opening a goddamn door?!”.
Something else other than surprise flickered on Six’s face just then. Something darker, more feral -his dark brows knitted over red rimmed eyes, twitching with the force of it. But as suddenly as it came, the surge washed off, brows smoothing over and snarl dying down.
“Arcade”, he started, taking a step forward and away from the console. His hair rose as a gust of wind stormed the ruins, dark matted curls catching on the bridge of his hooked nose. “Arcade, love -I’m doing this for you.”.
The dark beast behind Arcade’s ribcage lunged.
“Don’t you fucking lie to me!” .
Surprise found its face on Six’s face twice, then -twice more than it ever did in the whole time Arcade had known the man. He stopped his advance, hesitant for once in his life, dark eyes watching him carefully like a radstag ready to bolt. He didn’t reply, though, so Arcade went on, finding the breath in his lungs for the first time in days.
“None of this was for me. None of this was ever for me! You would’ve come here on your own. You would’ve gone through. You would’ve want to -to see all of this through, no matter what, even on your own, to find this Ulysses person and shake answers out of him as you always do -you would’ve come looking the moment your fucking Pip-Boy beeped and you got the signal, and you did! That’s exactly what you did. That’s what you did for Sierra Madre. That’s what you did at Zion, at the Big Empty, at the Dam . You had your hand to play, you had your... ideas , and plans , and I... I was…”. The more he spoke, the more he screamed, Arcade could feel his head grow fuzzy, pressure welling up behind his eyes. Eventually, it felt as if he was running out of gas, of breath, even, to continue speaking. His voice lowered, his throat spasming in the effort to keep speaking. “... I was enough of a goddamn fool to think I was ever a part of it.”.
He felt disoriented, as if the outburst had taken so much out of him that he could barely stand. He took a stumbling step back, then another; Six’s arms twitched, as if maybe he had thought of reaching over, to try and steady him; but then, thought better of it. He stumbled back until his shoulders hit his father’s armor, standing silently where he had left it.
Six turned away as he slid to the ground, hands once again worrying at his hair.
And now you’re gonna do it anyway.
No way out but through.
The earth stirred beneath him, and he scrubbed at his face, finding it wet.
He didn’t watch as the missile flew, but he heard the detonation -felt it in his bones. The winds that had died down rose up once again, clawing at his face, his sweat-soaked clothing. He didn’t rise as the clouds churned over them, as the air grew heavy with the promise of more glowing rain, currents disturbed by the scorching hot air released by the nuclear blast.
He didn’t move for a long time, but when he finally did, Six was still there -back turned from the console, leaning on it. Waiting for him to climb back into his suit and follow -as he knew he would, damn him.
No way out but through.
Hell greeted them with open, flaming arms, almost as soon as they entered the base.
They survived the descent into it, somehow. There was barely anything left of the base Six supposedly wanted to find shelter in from the nuclear blast -just a freight elevator that, for some reason, instead of careening down into the dark tunnel ahead as the general failing of the power system suggested it should’ve done, somehow sailed right through the explosions, the blasts of fire, and the burrowing, hissing things jumping out of the dark at them.
Wherever they were now, they were very, very far away from where they’d started. And it was pitch black. The base didn’t exist anymore at that point -its belly carved open by explosions, leaving nothing but a drop off cushioned at the end by piles of rubble. The darkness was so thick that for a second Arcade thought his visors had gotten damaged in the descent.
But no. Looking up, he could see why.
They were buried.
The skeletons of the buildings that once stood above the earth just over their heads were now their ceiling. So many of them, caved in on one another, that they completely blocked out the sky. And the ones that didn’t get blocked up by the open, gaping canyon had fallen right through -barely outlined in the dark as they were, he could spot their jagged edges, making out the cave’s floor -a whole other system of passages, a labyrinth by its own rights.
The air was still and smelled foul, of dust, metal and decay. No wind. No light -his headlamp was barely enough to see a foot in front of him, and only there -the darkness was all encompassing. And it wasn’t even quiet.
There was the sound of water, coming from somewhere deeper in. Not rushing -not in the way suggested by a current. More like still waters, lapping lazily at a shore when disturbed by things moving in it.
The burrowing creatures had come from their front during that wild elevator ride -from where they were now. Deep under the earth -right in their dominion.
As Six slunk forward, trying wordlessly to find a way down the drop, a quiet, almost clinical voice piped up in Arcade’s mind, still rooted where he had landed.
You’re about to have a panic attack.
It made sense. The only way out they knew of was… not there anymore. The elevator shaft was a ruin of burning rubble -not even his suit of armor would’ve protected him from those temperatures. It was dark. He couldn’t see the sky. He didn’t know where the way out of there was - if there was a way out, even.
Focus. Find something to focus on, Arcade. Time your breathing.
He raised his arm, hearing it clank a bit from the shakes, and switched a dial on the inside of his helmet -starting out a ticking counter. Bet his father didn’t think of that use of it, when he'd put it in -that Arcade would’ve used it to slow down his breathing and stop his stupid heart from jackrabbiting its way out of his chest. He closed his eyes -didn’t make a damn difference it was so dark, goddammit -, focused on his body. The way the cushioning of the armor hugged his shoulders -he’d wondered about that, if maybe his father hadn’t been as broadly built as he was. He flexed his fingers, feeling the armored plates sliding back from the knuckles, then on, then back.
It couldn’t have been more than five minutes, at most, but eventually his heart gave up on its escape attempt, and started to settle. Distantly, through the roaring of his ears, he realized he could barely hear a tiny beeping sound -the helmet’s alarm. His heart rate had spooked the damn thing. Thank God the noise was only internal.
He waited a few more seconds -if he stumbled the resulting clanging would’ve brought the whole damn place down on them-, then slowly got up.
“You good?”, Six asked him, from the dark to his left.
Arcade distantly wondered if he’d noticed. He must've had, if he’d asked. He nodded, not trusting his voice or the speakers. The courier nodded back, then gestured him closer and pointed at something farther down.
One of Ulysses’ railsigns, white paint shining weakly back at their headlamps’ meek light.
They pushed on.
But, as it turned out, they didn’t have much farther to go.
Even with the sign, they were completely, utterly lost. The dark would’ve been enough to confound even a master tracker -but the terrain? They made their way slowly, tentatively, through capsized buildings in a way the original designers had certainly not intended. Who would’ve thought that their precious corporate tower would’ve ended up stuck upside down deep into a radioactive trench, after all? Crawling through blasted out windows and finding their way through steeply inclined, crumbling corridors completely messed up what little sense of direction they had left. It felt like going in circles -ruin after ruin, no light, barely any air, moving slowly through the guts of the skeletons of the Old World.
Until their feet found water.
It was ankle deep, roughly -murky, dark and still. Their first steps into it disturbed a thick layer of sludge sitting on the surface of it, making it swirl around. The stench of decay was overwhelming.
It was no good thing for the water to have nowhere to go. Arcade didn’t have to spell it out to know that Six was thinking the exact same thing.
ED-E had been following them quietly until then -the only one of their little group that didn’t have a single problem with the terrain, maybe more with small passages, what with all of those whiskers. It kept silent, no cheery tunes, no beeping, probably realizing the need to be stealthy in a place like that -that its masters were too tired, too hurt, too done to risk drawing in any more fighting.
But suddenly the machine came alive, startling Arcade out of his skin -and the deep voice of Ulysses started echoing damningly loud in the cave.
“Thought that explosion, that building falling deep in the Divide, might’ve been your work… wouldn’t kill you, maybe close.
“Knew you’d survive… but no need to go any farther. You’ve brought me what I need -that machine with you, sealed in the Hopeville silo.
“Needed someone to unlock it -bring it home. Now the signal’s strong enough. I can call it to me.
“You had to make one last delivery, and that’s why I knew you’d come, Six. Couldn’t stay away, it’s who you are.
“The machine will do what it was programmed to do: whatever it can, to get home. And the sleeping giants will listen. It’ll bring the Divide to your nation -let its flag burn, just as you let the Divide burn.
“Big Mountain access code… Ulysses. Command override…
ED-E bleeped loudly after that, acknowledging the override. But even if it hadn’t done that, it was already too late.
The skittering behind them had gotten louder and louder, and after that last, screeching sound, its volume raised tenfold. Something hissed in the dark.
“Run!”, Six yelled, not wasting any time to wait for him. “Don’ lose the bot, move!”.
And they ran.
ED-E zipped past the range of their headlights -but both of them could at least track the warm machinery inside its hull with the recon sights of their helmets, following its signature, stumbling after it like hounds pursuing their quarry. The creatures behind them, however, were invisible at both their eyes and at tech. Not warm enough to show up in their radars, only Six’s Pip-Boy was probably able to track their heartbeats -and Six wasn’t exactly being forthcoming with the information at the moment, running ahead of him at breakneck speed, sliding and stumbling over the slick rubble hidden in the murky waters. Uncaring of the fact that Arcade couldn't quite keep the pace.
But the other man didn’t need his damn Pip-Boy to know they had a horde at their backs, and that it was gaining on them.
A bright green flash suddenly appeared ahead of them. The sound of rushing water had been covered by their fevered running -there was rainwater coming in from somewhere in the ceiling, where a hole large enough to let light filter through was also slowly flooding the cavern as well. The new water was glowing weakly, and outside, following the flash, a sinister rumble rolled out, dulled slightly by the carcasses of the buildings overhead.
A radiation storm.
The lighting had illuminated the end of their road. The cavern ended into a mountain of rubble with nowhere to go: there were no passages they could crawl through, nowhere sturdy enough to attempt to scale. ED-E stopped, hovered for a bit, then lifted itself, effortlessly slipping out of the death trap through the hole in the ceiling that the water was coming through -way out of their reach.
We’re trapped, thought Arcade, dully, even as he turned, rifle in hand, to face the horde.
The burrowing things were a distorted mirror image of a human child. Roughly the size of it, with chubby, stout limbs and large clawed hands, made stronger by digging. But that was where the similarities ended.
They had smooth, pale greyish-yellow skin, the same tint a cadaver a few days old would take. Their eyes were big, sunken in ridiculously oversized orbits -adapted to see what little they could in the dark. They flashed in and out of view, growling and spitting, not trusting their numbers against the glare of the headlamps in their favored darkness. When they did, they hissed, unhinging their jaws to show black mouths crawling with too many teeth.
Six started shooting, then, and Arcade followed through.
It was madness. The beasts were everywhere -spilling their blood made the others more reckless instead of cautious, as if enraged by the loss of their packmates. Soon they had to start climbing the rubble to get away from their claws, keeping their rain of fire as tight as they could -even if the beasts were already swiping at their ankles, trying to get them to stumble.
A louder roar, from somewhere deep in the cavern, and the monsters cried back at it in answer, their efforts redoubling -for only a second, for when another lighting came from the radstorm, illuminating the cave, they crawled back, momentarily terrified of the green light.
Arcade looked up, in desperation, rain rolling down his visor. There was nowhere to go -and the creatures weren’t stopping. For every one they managed to put down, two more would take its place. It just wasn’t sustainable.
Then he saw it. Pale and glinting with rain slick, the tip of a warhead -one of the smaller, cluster-size ones- poking slightly out of the rubble above their heads.
It was madness. But Arcade reloaded his rifle, pulled the barrel up, and started shooting at it.
Ballistic bullets would’ve done nothing to the thick shell that encased the bomb, no matter the caliber. A few holes wouldn’t have been enough to disturb the systems that kept it dormant -not enough heat, not enough damage. Plasma bolts shouldn’t have been enough either -America coated their warheads in thick protective layers of duraframe steel, the same shit ED-E was made of, to ensure that their bombs would get where they needed to, no matter what. Navarro had had plenty of those, before NCR seized the whole base.
But that warhead had been sitting there for two centuries, exposed to rain, dented by the rubble, abandoned. No one to solder the broken protective plates back in place. And so, when the bolts hit it just right, the layers fell off, exposing the delicate machinery inside.
“What the fuck are you doin’?!”, Six screamed from somewhere at his right. Arcade didn’t turn.
“Run!”, he yelled back, powering through the skittering beasts just as they were coming back, emboldened by the lack of any more lightingstrikes. They hissed in surprise at his sudden advance, clawing at his legs, but he kept moving -despite the pain, despite the panic, probably because of them both.
He managed to get behind the remnants of a broken off building, just before the nuke went off in a blast of blinding light.
When he came to next, there was light.
The rain was still falling, he could sort of hear it, distantly. His head felt full of cotton -opening his mouth let a rush of a metallic taste in, making him gag.
Blood. He was laying on his front, head smashed against the inside of his helmet -with any luck his nose wasn’t broken, but he doubted he had any of that left, at that point.
But he was thinking clearly, at least. Sort of. It felt as if he hadn’t passed out at all -he had no memory of moving out from behind cover, so the blast definitely got to him, but he wasn’t trapped. It hurt, but his limbs were still there -and he could move them.
He slowly dragged his legs under him, then his arms. A groan escaped him.
There was no stagnant water anymore. No hisses, no skittering. No roars.
Only blinding green light, the sound of rushing rain, and pain.
He dragged himself to the remains of a building close to his left, using the rebar sticking out of it to push himself up.
God, it hurt.
Taking a look around him, he could see that the wall that had blocked their escape didn’t exist anymore. He could see the faint outline of more buildings -more Divide beyond it, just barely visible in the mist. What looked like another base -no civilian building for sure, its access hidden under a rocky slope. Waiting.
No sign of the courier.
“Six?”, Arcade called out. His voice was a croak, barely audible over the rush of wind and rain even with the speakers. He looked around once more, seeing nothing stir at his call. “Six?!”, he tried again, a bit more forcefully.
He pushed himself off the building. His rifle was a few steps ahead -crushed under a sharp piece of what used to be a street sign. He didn’t even try to pull it out -the barrel was so cracked that even attempting to fire the thing would’ve made it blow up in his hands, for sure. He was sort of attached to them, so he shook his head, even if the act made his vision swim, and moved on.
He kept walking, stumbling on the fresh, barely settled rubble, until he saw it.
In a small pool created by a few pieces of concrete, half submerged in what was left of the stagnant water, laid Six. His pack was torn, again -a few odds and ends light enough to float where crowding the corpse. He had no helmet on anymore -torn away by the burrowing beasts, for sure, just like the bag and his exposed clothing.
His throat, too, was slashed open.
Arcade thought, dimly, that he must have been in shock. His lizard brain had kicked in -he knew what he was seeing, there was no mistaking it. No bubbles of air in the dirty water in the body’s mouth -it wasn’t breathing. He was done. But despite knowing it, his mind couldn't quite take in the reality of what it was seeing -not yet.
Distantly, he saw his arms move -slipping out of the suit of power armor, he crouched down to the remains of the torn pack, freeing the jug of flamer fuel they’d lifted from the marked men with shaking fingers. He grabbed the corpse by the back of its coat, dragged it out of the water, leaving a red trail behind -not for long. The rain worked fast, washing the blood off before it could seep.
In a fit of inspiration, his eye fell on the Pip-Boy still somehow attached to the corpse’s arm. Those things were made to be sturdy -even submerging them in water wasn’t gonna break them. It had taken a bit of punishment from the creatures' claws, but the thing was still perfectly functional even with a cracked screen and a scratched up casing. He bent down, releasing the clasps with a careful hand -now that its owner was dead, the machine didn’t oppose any resistance at being torn from its body. He looked it over, then rolled his own sleeve up and clasped it on.
Six’s wrist had been bony, so it took a bit of fidgeting. But eventually the Pip-Boy settled, and Arcade left it at that, content to let it boot up and log its new owner’s vitals.
Turning his attention back to the corpse, Arcade opened the flask and doused it, careful to not get any of the fuel on himself. He slipped his armored hand into its breast pocket (it was still somewhat tepid, under the lapels of its coat), pulling out an engraved lighter. It still had some fuel in it, no matter its owner’s habit of chain smoking.
Arcade wasn’t in the habit of leaving people to the animals.
He moved on. The passage that the nuke had opened led to a slope made of rubble and shrapnel in equal parts, demanding a careful slide if he didn’t want to end up impaled somewhere on the way down. Peering down showed no signs of life around the valley below -if at any point anything had inhabited it, the detonation had either killed them, or pushed them away for good.
No way out but through. He slid down, leaving behind the stench of burning flesh, until he found the entrance of yet another missile silo. It was locked, the flag of Old World’s America crudely painted on its doors in red, white, and blue streaks.
Repurposed, now -most likely by that other courier. Ulysses. But if the silos of the Divide had answered to Navarro’s codes, they would answer to his, too.
“Navarro Base ID code GMDB06”, he breathed, keeping the intercom attached to the door active by leaning all of his weight in his closed punch over the button. “Override code... canis canem non est.”.
The intercom beeped to life. “Welcome, officer -Mark Gannon, to Enclave Military Stockpile -Ashton”, chirped a feminine robotic voice, somehow sounding rusty by disuse. “This is your -first, access. Please retrieve your new access codes from the quartermaster desk in the -infantry, wing. Enjoy your stay, and God bless America.”.
“Fuck you”, Arcade mumbled back at it, even as the doors slid open with a hiss.
Time to put an ending to things.
“The Divide heard your voice.”.
The lone figure standing on the launchpad didn’t turn. His voice was deep -even deeper then what Arcade thought it was, when he heard it from ED-E’s speakers. The little eyebot trailed quietly behind him now, after he’d awakened it from the pod Ulysses left it in.
It mourned Six, in some way. He didn’t have to tell it anything -its whiskers moved, and it bleeped sadly, losing a bit of altitude as it did. But it bumped its chassis against his chest when he told him to go -to fly away from that place, go home, wherever it was supposed to be. The bot played a cheery tune, and bobbed slightly into place, refusing to leave.
At that point, Arcade had the quite unique feeling of being undeserving of the bot’s loyalty. Whatever ED-E had seen in Six… he was pretty sure he didn’t have it.
Maybe that was the thing. Who knew with bots, really.
Ulysses shook his head as he approached, braids shaking slightly at the movement. “It does not matter. The message has already been carried out. The giants heard it, and started answering -now it is just a matter of time. Even if you couldn’t detach yourself from your… machine… bringing it here does nothing”. Then, and only then, he turned -and his dark eyes widened in surprise. A beat of silence, as they regarded each other warily, then: “You… it is your voice they answered.”.
“Yes -well, no. Not really.”. His throat was parched and tight, but even then, by all means nothing but a few steps away from death’s door, Arcade could not stop himself from running his mouth. “My father… he was the one with the codes. I just sort of… inherited them. Never really changed them -no need, really, not when all of, well, this … was, supposedly, no more.”.
“Your father…”, repeated Ulysses, moving down a few steps. “Your father… fought for the Bear?”.
“Goody, no. I mean, we… well, they tried to make them listen -I’m gonna take a wild guess and assume you mean the NCR, right? Well, our people try to make them listen. But… with our records, I can get why we weren’t exactly the easiest neighbors to live with. Even when they signed the capitulation, them… the californians, they couldn’t really trust them. I don’t blame them, to be honest. Genocide… and attempted genocide do tend sound a bit bad on one’s resume.”.
“You don’t carry the Bear’s flag… yet you do not carry the Bull’s. Nor the ghosts of Vegas. You don’t have their stench.”. Ulysses squinted at him. “Who… are you?”.
Arcade paused a bit at that. Something in his mind told him that was not the answer the courier wanted, but he tried anyway. “My name is Arcade Gannon.”.
“I did not ask that.”. Yeppers. “But I will at least call you by your name. You are… something I was not expecting. But the warheads can not be stopped anyway. I will indulge you -in the name of hospitality, in what was once, could have been, my home.”. Ulysses gestured at -well, him. “What is your history, Arcade Gannon?”.
Wasn’t that a loaded question -one that Arcade had spent his entire life running from, to boot.
At that point, he guessed, there was really nowhere else to run anymore.
“I was born in the Enclave”, he started. Ulysses’s eyes brightened with recognition. “Long after it fell, mind you. We were part of the survivors from the oil rig -maybe you’ve heard of it. We lived in Navarro.”.
“Then the Bear came for you.”.
“Well, yes. But again, I do not really blame them.”.
“Your history was no more. Your people were massacred -but you stand before me, and the Divide listened to your voice. So you must not be lying. That means… you either hid, or pushed your history away. Offered your belly to the Bear.”.
“Would you believe me if I said we did a bit of both?”, Arcade replied. “Some of us… tried to blend in. They were even successful. But…”. He licked at his cracked lips, disturbing the cuts. The sting made his eyes water, but it kept his mind working. “I mean. I know what you’re doing -you want to burn the NCR down, don’t you? For… this. What happened here, in the Divide. You said you were Legion, in your tapes -or had been, at least, once-”.
“You found them… you listened to them?”, Ulysses interrupted. He looked… shocked, for a second, before his face closed off once more. “They were nothing but words, and I cast them away. There is nothing to be learned from them.”.
“On the contrary, I think they were quite informative”, Arcade replied. “You aren’t wrong to think the NCR’s way of things is not the solution, I think. I’ve seen it myself, first-hand.”.
“This isn’t about the Enclave. But yes, my people -everyone’s people, I guess. Just people, no fancy flags or anything. The Followers didn’t discriminate much -if someone needed help, we’d take them in. No questions asked. You know of them, right? The Followers of the Apocalypse?”. Ulysses nodded slightly. “We… they tried, you know. They keep trying so hard -but you’re right. The NCR is just… not enough. They stretch too far, want to hold too much, and they make promises, yes, and won’t hold them. They cannot. There’s simply just… too much out there, and not enough of them. When we… they, the Followers… when they tried to help, we saw it first hand.”.
“Then you must see that they have not learned from their history”, Ulysses countered. “They wear symbols they know nothing of. The Bear grows, but without structure -like the symbol it wears, its two heads wage war against one another, while holding both nothing at all.".
“So you just… plan to wipe it all off? Make it as if it was never there, and start again?”.
Arcade didn’t know, at that point, why exactly he was humoring this man’s apparent penchant for conversation. Had he had the time to think on it for a bit, he would’ve probably said that it was because he was unarmed and too weak to try and fight Ulysses on his own, suit or no suit. He needed a command console to try and call off those damn nukes, something that the courier certainly had access to -and could grant him the same access, if only he’d managed to talk him down.
Ulysses wasn’t a brute, but he wasn’t a plotter, neither.
He wasn’t Six. The man laid his hand on the table, plain to see, and was asking for it to be challenged. He didn’t want to battle -he wanted to talk and to be heard.
Arcade could do with some listening.
Ulysses took in his question, then shook his head. “The Courier showed me another way -the Big Mountain showed me the means to do it. California will burn -but not from this.
“Cut off a supply line. Cut off a road, to make something greater fall. Cut the Bear’s throat to bleed it out. They will run back -retreat from the Dam, leaving it for the Legion, ripe for the picking. One flag will fly on the Mojave.
But the Bull won’t stop. It isn’t in its nature. It will run ahead, conquering, spreading, until it will find the sea. Then, it will turn on itself. Burn itself out.”.
Arcade could see it. It made sense -let them tear at each other until nothing remained but a clean slate. The people would rebuild, eventually. They always did. Global nuclear annihilation wasn’t enough to stop them once -two nations burning out were nothing compared to that.
Or were they?
“When the Divide burned”, he started, catching Ulysses’ attention back. “You were here. You had lived here a while. You said it destroyed a nation -the start of it, at least. Something new, something hopeful that you wanted to protect. But it got destroyed -by accident.”.
“Careless ignorance”, Ulysses said. “My act is nothing like that. I act with conviction.”.
“I can see it. It makes sense -it does, truly.”. A beat of silence then. Running his mouth was his forte, usually, but this wasn’t just that. Ulysses’ conviction demanded better than that -it required respect. “Will you allow me to speak, Ulysses?”.
The man narrowed his eyes at him. Silence followed for a while, as he thought on it. “You know this won’t change anything. The giants are awake now -there is no stopping them.”.
“Are you sure about that?”, Arcade asked. “The… ah, as you say it, the Divide… listened to me once already.”.
The courier straightened his back at that. “Then why don’t you speak to it? If you can make it sleep, then make it so. Unless you are tricking me”, he added, dark brows furrowing over his black eyes.
“I am not”, Arcade replied. “I can stop this. But I can’t do it if you don’t see my side -if I don’t get the chance to let you hear me out. So, in a sense, you’re right -right now, I can’t do anything. But I could -and I wish you’d allow me the chance to… try, and make you understand why.”.
“Why? Would you speak in the defense of the Bear, then?”, Ulysses demanded. “Even after everything it did to your people? Your history?”.
Arcade shook his head. “No. I would… I have no point to bring forward, other than my own.”.
“And who are you, Arcade Gannon?”.
A beat of silence passed, then, as Arcade’s eyes fell to his feet -dull, scuffed. Nothing left of the old Enclave shine. “I’m a doctor”, he replied, at length. “My job is to try. I try to heal people, no matter where they’re from, no matter if… if they were Legion, or NCR, or anybody else. The flags, they don’t matter to me none. Not anymore.”.
“So is that who you will stand in defense of? Nothing at all?”.
“People, Ulysses. If you’ll allow me.”.
The man regarded him in silence, after that. His eyes were black -Arcade had noticed that already- but they were nothing like Six’s eyes. He saw his throat work, beneath his breather mask. His gaze didn’t fall -so Arcade did his best to keep his own up, no matter how tired he was.
“Then speak for America”, Ulysses said, eventually. “Speak for your people, American. I will listen to you.”.
The next time Arcade opened his eyes, he could feel a nice breeze lapping at his face. It felt nice. Refreshing, even -after days of…
He blinked, trying to make his eyes focus. No glasses. But his right hand twitched -he had them in there. Someone left them in his hand.
He slipped them on, moving his arm carefully. He’d been expecting pain, but -it didn’t hurt at all. He felt heavy with sleep, yet still tired -but in no pain. It was surprising, to say the least.
Over his head, the branches of a mesquite tree bobbed lazily in the wind. The sky beyond it was clear, and oh so blue.
He sat up a bit, slowly taking in his surroundings. He was… it looked like he was at the edges a salt flat of some kind. The ground was cracked, warmed by the sun -but glistening and white, as far as the eye could see. There were mountains, far away to his right, but he could barely see them, even if he squinted. The mesquite tree was the only bit of shade he could spot for miles -from where he was laying, at least.
He was sitting in a clean-ish bedroll, in a camp. His things… his pack was sitting against the trunk, next to him. His suit of armor stood a few feet away, unmoving, inactive. It was almost unrecognizable from the day Arcade had dug it out of his stash -weeks ago, now, for the battle of Hoover Dam. Blackened with soot, scuffed and dented. But still there. In working condition, too, probably, if he had managed to bring it all the way over there.
But… where was there, exactly?
“You’re awake. Good.”.
“Jesus Christ on a fucking cross!”, he yelped, unable to help himself -he’d jumped right out of his skin, right then and there, and whoever had spoken even had the gall to chuckle at his woes. He turned to the other side of the trunk, leaning a bit to see who was leaning against it. “Don’t… don’t do…”. His protest ran out then. He squinted and turned his head a bit. “... Ulysses?”.
It all came rushing back.
Ulysses had agreed to stop the nukes. He handed him a gun -told him to defend himself. The Divide wasn’t done with them, he had warned him -but once they’d cleared a path, he could take him to the console. Have him speak at it -put the giants to sleep.
Then the marked men had come.
Arcade didn’t remember much of that. It was… a bit of a blur. He’d been exhausted already -veering on the verge of death by exposure, at the very least. But he tried, damn if he tried, did his best. Ulysses had…
He had taken him out of his suit, when the battle was done and he couldn’t find it in himself to move anymore. Carried him somewhere down, deeper into the basek, had him speak the codes to the terminals ED-E fried itself over to grant him the access he needed, the poor thing.
Then… he could remember no more.
“You got it back?”, Arcade asked, gesturing at the suit.
Ulysses shrugged. “It is yours -not the Divide’s, not anyone’s.”.
Braved the trek back on his own and piloted it all the way there. Just to retrieve his property -his inheritance. “Thank you.”.
“No need to mention it.”. Ulysses rose, then flattened a cool palm against his forehead. “You slept for days. You were out of medicine -radiation, pain, sickness. I healed you. Let you rest away from the Divide’s wrath. Somewhere safe. It should have never taken it out on you”, he added, almost as an afterthought, once he had removed his hand and straightened back up. “You weren’t the messenger.”.
“No”, Arcade agreed. “But… I guess I needed to hear it speak, if I wanted to get through, right?”.
Ulysses nodded minutely. “It is a hard message to bear. Leaves a mark -deep inside.”.
“What are you going to do now?”, Arcade asked, after a while. He was sitting up against the tree -not the most comfortable of seats, but after the Divide? The breeze, the sun… he felt like paradise.
“Guard the message. It is custom of the Bear to never see the marks it claws in the land.”. Ulysses shook his head at that, disdain clear in the gesture. “Not my custom.”.
Arcade didn’t have anything to say at that -for it, or against it. It wasn’t his decision to make, and if nothing else, he could respect Ulysses’ dedication.
“Where is it that the American goes, now?”, the other man asked, reaching over and offering him a canteen.
“Away. Where he can deal no more damage, he hopes”, Arcade answered after taking a few careful sips. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Ulysses’ offer -it was his own stomach that he didn’t trust. The man watched him carefully, but he seemed to know this, because he took the canteen back without mentioning it.
“You weren’t the messenger”, he repeated.
“I wasn’t, no. But I’ve got the codes, have I not?”, Arcade pointed out. His voice was starting to slur a bit -god, his head was so heavy. “My people… The Americans. The Enclave. They made those things for the sake of destruction. Of power. They didn’t care for symbols, or flags, or people, of all things -except their own. When it was convenient, at least.”. He snorted. “I’m glad we stopped it. It wouldn’t have been right, to wear that mantle again -bear that stain. Not for you, not for… anyone else.”.
Ulysses remained quiet for a long time, then. Arcade didn’t mind. He was still quite a bit tired.
“Rest”, he said eventually, voice coming through the fog as sleep started to overtake him once again. “You need it.”.
Ulysses left him a week later.
Arcade had gained some strength back. Not enough to make the trip, mind you -not on his own, not yet. But the courier marked a road on his Pip-Boy, through those salt flats nobody really cared about, and a few other locations to boot.
“There is a tribe, three hours of walking from here”, he said, pointing at the marker. “They will take you in, with my word. You can recover there, better than here -then move forward. Away. From the Bear, from the Enclave too, if you wish. The road is there -it is yours to take, if you wish for it.”.
Arcade took his arm back. “Thank you, Ulysses”, he said. He meant it.
He had provisions, a gun, supplies -part of Ulysses’ stash. He shared them freely -”for America”, he had said. “I wear your flag -its history is worth feeding, at least. You look like a profligate left to dry out too long in the sun.”.
He laughed at the ridiculousness of that thought.
Then, Ulysses sobered up. “You gave much to think about, American”, he said. “Will you allow me to ask you something, too?”.
“I thought you'd said you would refer to me by name. What happened to that?”.
The courier huffed, but nodded his assent. “You are right. Will you listen, Arcade Gannon?”.
His black eyes caught his in a snare, and didn’t let go until he was done talking. “The Divide called out to you by name. It was not just code -a message carried by a machine, copy after copy of it. No identity. No history.
“It knew you. Your own history. America’s history. Miles away from the place you were born into this world -it knew of you .
“You said to me that your wish is to disappear. To go where your history won’t follow in your steps -where it cannot haunt you. Call out to you by your name, and make your people cower in fear.
“I ask you now, where is that place, Arcade Gannon? How far do you have to run before America cannot stake its claim on you anymore?”.
A month later, Arcade was busy turning his room in the shack he’d been sharing with one of the village’s hunters upside down, looking for his father’s watch.
He knew he’d taken it off the previous evening. Yes, he knew it was a bit redundant wearing a watch now that he had a Pip-Boy, but Arcade was nothing if not a sentimental fool. Besides, he’d just spent all night shoulders deep into a bighorn, pulling at a calf intent on trying and come out the wrong way around.
He wouldn’t have wanted to risk losing it in… well, in the bighorn.
Ulysses hadn’t lied -the tribals had taken him in with no fuss once he found someone who spoke English and told them he had sent him. Their doctor liked to make a fuss about his way of cleaning out his wounds, but Arcade had the sneaking suspicion they just enjoyed making him uncomfortable with their outlandish “techniques” that weren’t really a thing.
Or that’s what he hoped, at least.
Once he had recovered enough to walk around on his own, at least for more than thirty steps without feeling light-headed, the villagers had put him to work. He didn’t mind, to be honest. For all of his griping, he had missed it -being a doctor. Giving back, in some way.
Now, he had told them that he was not a veterinarian, too -but it was either having him help the shepherd and the village’s doctor, or risking both the bighorn’s and the calf’s lives, so. They twisted his arm, really.
Hours later, finally feeling clean enough to exist without fighting the urge to puke if he happened to catch a whiff of himself, he only needed to locate the other part of his priceless inheritance, and then he could’ve finally started packing up and getting ready to leave the village -as he’d been procrastinating on for the last couple of days.
“Arcade Israel Gannon, you miserable, utter fool of a man”, he mumbled at himself, hands worrying at his hair, as he surmised the mess he’d just made of the whole space -while not being a step closer to finding the damn thing.
His gaze then fell on the overturned contents of his pack -on a white parcel, more precisely. Or, well, dirty white. It had definitely taken a bit of a beating at some point. It was small, no larger than a book.
He squinted and crouched down. He was sure he hadn’t picked it up from anywhere, not recently at least -picking it up, he found it tightly wrapped with duct tape, the edges of it frayed and blackened with dirt. He turned it in his hands.
The Follower’s cross. Julie’s parcel… God, he had completely forgotten about it.
He sat on the unmade bed, rough woolen blanket itching at his legs -he hadn’t bothered with pants, not yet. He dug around his forgotten left boot to take his knife out, and carefully cut away the tape shell. His hands were trembling a bit when he pulled it away, revealing the contents.
A tightly folded piece of paper fell into his lap -a letter, maybe? He took it into his hands and put it aside for the moment, lest he lost track of that as well.
Inside the parcel was a journal. Arcade recognized it -it was his own: his research, left behind that day at the Fort, long before the battle at the Dam. He’d done that on purpose -he hadn’t lied, back when he’d told Six he wasn’t even that good of a researcher, but… he had thought that leaving behind what little he had accomplished would’ve been of some help to Julie’s people, even if he couldn't stay anymore.
He opened the letter, then.
I hope this letter manages to find its way to you. One of the Courier’s friends -Raul, I believe his name is, has been spending a few days here at the Fort with us, to take a look at that centrifuge we always had trouble with. We’re gonna need it, when the wounded start pouring in. I’m planning to leave this to him -hoping that your paths will cross, at some point, after all of this is done.
Look at me, wasting precious paper with pleasantries. I’m sorry, Arcade, and I wish I could word this better. You were always the one with the better words, between us. I’m sorry for what I said the last time we saw each other -for how blunt I was. I hope that one day you’ll find it in yourself to forgive me and to see that it had to be done.
It pained me to hurt you, when all you did was come to me in confidence. But I have to protect the Followers, Arcade. In the coming days, when the dust will settle, they will come looking. NCR, bounty hunters, Brotherhood, and who knows who else. I know the Enclave enough to know that whatever it is that your people are planning to do, it is not gonna be subtle. I cannot take that risk -not now, not when we’re gonna need all the support we can get to deal with the amount of work that will be expected of us.
Your history is too much of a liability to us, at the moment. Not with Kimball looking for any opening he can exploit to drive us away, to divert even more funding to the OSI. It pains me to admit it, but we can’t afford to have anything linking us to you and the Enclave.
For that, I need you to take your journal back. Your quarters have already been cleaned up -as respectfully as we could, of course. I let Emily deal with the personal effects you didn’t take with you. She assured me that they were all disposed of with the utmost care.
Call me a sentimental fool all you want, Arcade, but I couldn’t bring myself to let her dispose of this, too. If there’s any chance it can find its way back to you -to help you help someone else, maybe, then I will take that chance. Your life’s work is too precious to be cast away, even if it comes with a heavy history. I hope that one day you’ll finally be in the position to resume these studies without having it loom over your head -that one day you’ll be free of its shadow, at last.
Until then, know that me and all of the friends you have here in the Mojave will think of you, forever and with love. I will miss you dearly, my friend.
PS: I met a child, here at the Fort -one of the liberated slaves from Fortification Hill. I believe her name is Melody. She spoke very highly of a tall, blond doctor who patched up her ankle back at the Fort, and who is supposed to marry her once she gets a little bit taller. I thought you would’ve liked to know that your betrothed is happy and healthy, and that we have found her a home back in California.
A few words got smudged when Arcade’s hand tightened his grip on the papers, and the tears rolled over the ink. They were still legible, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care.
He set the letter aside, over the folds of the blanket in which his father’s watch poked out, and quietly wept. For Julie, for the Divide, for Six; for the life he foolishly thought he could've had, if only he could pretend hard enough to be someone that he wasn't.
Arcade knew then, with a finality different from the sort that came with the knowledge of being hunted, that those lies were a luxury he would've never been able to afford anymore.