(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you
“So,” Preston says; a lot more hesitantly than he was hoping for, but that’s life. “General wants you working with me for a little while, uh, I guess because he’s hoping I can make you…not kill people. Or at least not as many people.”
“Good luck,” X6-88 tells him.
“Yeah. Luck. Because I’ve got a whole bunch of that just lying around.”
“Maybe your farmers can grow some for you,” X6-88 says sardonically. “I’d pay to see that.”
You’re all about peace and goodwill for man, Preston pictures the General saying. Building things out of rubble. And seeing as I’m the one travelling out to settlements, I figure you’ve got time for a side project. Preston Garvey, meet the Courser. Courser, Preston Garvey. You’re assigned to him until further notice. Have fun.
“I don’t know what to do with you, man,” Preston says helplessly. “Doesn’t look like you’re planning on making this easy for either of us.”
“That’s perceptive of you.”
“I have my moments.” The sun is just barely over the horizon, the General just barely out of sight over the hill, and it’s not too late to run after him and beg for some kind of reprieve. Tell him this isn’t going to work. Not because Preston won’t make the effort; he will. He always will. He’ll work long days without rest, nights without sleep, coaxing life from the dirt; he’ll be the beacon of hope that the General was for him, and he’ll teach their recruits to plant seeds and patrol and put down their weapons when an enemy wants to surrender. He’ll make the effort. That’s not what he’s afraid of here.
If the Minutemen stand for life, for green shoots growing sturdy in soured dirt, then X6-88 is the acid rain that blights them. He’s the Institute itself; he doesn’t even try to hide it. He’s proud that people cross Sanctuary’s streets to avoid him. He sneers at their gardens, their fences, their rough, home-made meals.
He won’t remove the sunglasses. That’s fair enough; Deacon won’t either, except maybe around the General, and people have just learnt to accept it. But Deacon doesn’t look at people like he’s counting up all the ways he could kill them with the least inconvenience to himself.
It’s not too late to tell the General he can’t do this.
“You got any preferences for work?” Preston asks. He keeps his eyes fixed on the hillside winding path, the northward trade route that represents reprieve. Five minutes’ jog and he could give this job up before it’s started. Chances are nobody would hold it against him. Even the Railroad hesitates at Courser rehabilitation. They know from experience: it doesn’t work.
You can’t fix what won’t admit it needs fixing.
“Farming’s out of the question,” Preston says. “Trainees start off with Marcy, or over at Abernathy Farm, but none of them will take you. Sturges might. He runs the building teams; you ever used a hammer? Saw? Screwdriver?”
“No,” X6-88 says.
Figures, Preston thinks. “Well, uh, do you want to learn?”
“Should have seen that coming, I guess. Okay. We’ve got a roster for folks on cooking duty, I could ask Codsworth- or, you know what, I’m not gonna do that. Ditto for laundry duty.” That’s a shame. There’s ash on the wind, ash in the air, and it sticks in clothes and hair like burrs in a field. The Institute is still smoking gently, a day’s travel down south. They’re having to wash everything twice as often.
“Guard duty?” Preston says. “I can’t assign you solo, but I could partner you up with someone if you think you can play nice for a while.”
X6-88 just looks at him. His sunglasses glint like beetle carapaces, shining opaque. He tilts his head. “I could,” he says slowly. “But I don’t think I’m gonna. I’m assigned to you, Preston Garvey. You’re the only person I have to play nice with.”
“I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
“Then it’s a shame the boss wasn’t a little more specific with his wording,” X6-88 says lazily. “You assign me a partner, and I’ll send them crying back to you within the hour. Assuming I send them back at all.”
Rejection comes as a relief, in a way. There’s nobody in Sanctuary who’d agree to being partnered with a Courser. Preston can’t find the energy to blame them for it. He glances over at his charge, and has to repress a shudder. His instincts scream, danger. His skin crawls at the thought of this…machine at his back.
He can’t do this. He’d have better luck coaxing compassion from the Castle’s stone walls.
“Okay,” he says, trying to think. “No chores, no building, no farming, no guard duty. Guess we could keep you in reserve for the next time raiders try stepping in on Minutemen territory. You got any issues with killing raiders?”
“I have no issues with killing,” X6-88 tells him. His lips twitch; a mean little smile.
I walked right into that, Preston thinks wearily. “What do you want, then? What do you want to do?”
Just like that, the smile disappears. At his side, X6-88’s fingers tense themselves into claws.
“What do I want?” he asks. “What do I want? What the hell do you think I want, Preston Garvey? I want to go home.”
He’s staring at Preston- no, he’s staring through Preston, through the Sanctuary buildings behind him, through the hills and wasteland dirt and peeling trees that separate them from the Institute. What’s left of it.
Funny, really. Stare past the Institute for long enough, you’ll end up at Quincy. What’s left of it. Preston’s made that mental journey too many times to count; he knows where the wreckage lies. The guilt won’t ever let him truly forget.
“Did you talk to the General?” he asks, softening his tone. “About what the Railroad did? About why he decided it had to be done?” For a brief moment, he’s positive X6-88 is going to take a swing at him. The hands are clenched, knuckles calloused from all the punches he doesn’t pull because his makers made him to hurt, and if he’s going to lash out then maybe it’s better he does it here. Preston’s had worse than a bloody nose; he can defend himself if it looks like the fight won’t stop at punches. Maybe it’s best they just get this over with.
“The General,” X6-88 says through clearly gritted teeth. “Thinks I’m not in a good frame of mind for talking right now. And he’s not exactly the talking type either, so. He’s making the right call there. Dumping me on you until he figures I’m too burnt out to do anything but obey. No talking necessary.”
“I’m sorry,” Preston says. It’s all he has.
“You’re not,” X6-88 hisses at him. “You’re like all the other savages here; you don’t understand the loss mankind just suffered. You sit in your pathetic mud huts, and you actually think you won a victory in wiping us out. You think you still have a future. The kindest thing anyone could do is kill you all quickly, before you see how bad things are going to get without the Institute.” His shoulders hunch, heaving; he leans in Preston’s direction like a big cat with black eyes, waiting to leap.
It’s a display meant to frighten, and Preston is scared. Of course he is. Something about this creature bypasses his conscious mind and scrapes against instincts he can’t control. Reptile brain, Curie calls it. The last line of defense, when logic will not do. If the reptile says to run, Monsieur Garvey, you should run. That way, perhaps you will live.
That’s all very well, and maybe even useful. But Preston isn’t the reptile, and he’s scared a lot of the time anyway. He looks at this Institute killing machine, this monster from kiddie bedtime stories; he sees a man in pain.
He sees a shadow of the General, as he was when Preston first met him; two days out of the Vault, treading old world ash behind him. The rage, the confusion. The war he couldn’t fight against anyone except himself.
He looks at the Courser and sees himself after Quincy.
“I remember when the Minutemen died,” Preston says, though the wording feels like peeling strips of skin from his body. He ignores it. “I knew that was the end. No Minutemen, no future. Without us around, it was all gonna be over. I mean, what the hell kind of world could there be without the Minutemen?”
“It’s different,” X6-88 says. He holds himself as still as a the statue by Sanctuary bridge; he doesn’t attack.
“It’s not,” Preston says gently. “I knew in my bones we were done for. Dragged a small group of survivors out, figuring we’d find somewhere to hunker down and wait for everything to go to hell. Just…working on autopilot. Just waiting. And I was sick like that for a long time, up here-” he taps his own temple, and sees X6-88’s chin lift to follow the gesture. “Like all the light was gone.”
“We were betrayed.”
“I feel you,” Preston says. “I get what that’s like. Nothing else in the world compares.”
He turns away from the hillside path, the General’s footprints still visible in the dirt. Not going that way. Maybe he’ll kick himself for it later, but right now…
“When did it stop?” X6-88 asks. Preston glances over at him, and finds the hunting stance gone, the shoulders slumped and hands hanging empty. “When did you come back to yourself?”
“Not sure,” Preston says. “Maybe in a few years’ time. Until then it’s more like a shadow, everywhere I go. Hard work makes it easier. Too tired to think, you know.”
“Farming,” X6-88 says. His lip curls, but it’s half-hearted.
“Sure, if you want,” Preston tells him. “Marcy won’t teach you, but I probably could. Got a vegetable garden I’m starting around the back of HQ. Carrots and lettuce, mostly. Maybe a tato plant or two. Just something I’m doing in my down time. The kitchen crew won’t turn away any extra produce we can grow. You wouldn’t believe how much some people can eat; pretty sure Hancock’s got a black hole inside his stomach.”
“But you do other things,” X6-88 says. “You’re the second in command around here. You should be above farm work.”
“I’m not above eating.”
“You’re made for war.”
Is that what they were teaching you? Preston thinks. He knows better than to ask; that probably would get him punched. He needs to tread gentle, work his way around the Institute programming that chokes this creature’s mind like ivy. Needs to count his victories. At least now he knows there actually is a mind thriving under the weeds. Hurting, yes. But pain is human. Pain is something he can connect with.
“I’ll tell you what my job is,” Preston says. He starts walking, treading the trail back to Sanctuary, and X6-88 falls in at his shoulder without comment. “It’s everything. I do my best to be involved in every part of Minutemen work, even if it’s just getting to know the person in charge of a certain patrol, or the leader of a settlement. I receive orders from the Castle, I work out who I need to pass them on to. Who needs warning, who needs protecting, who needs a shipment of extra rations because their farm has an expecting mother. And, yeah, I also lead patrols. I see a lot of action. If you want to stick with me, I can guarantee you’ll be under fire at least once every few days.”
“Glad someone’s happy about it.”
“It’s what I was made for,” X6-88 says. “It’s what Father wanted from me.”
Preston winces. “Not gonna pretend I understand that.”
“I doubt you ever could.”
“That’s fair,” Preston says. “Kind of like how you can’t understand why I don’t spend all my time out killing raiders, huh? We both have a lot to learn.”
There’s silence at his shoulder, but he wasn’t really expecting a reply.
“You can shadow me, if you want,” Preston says. “I’m okay with that. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind some extra company; there’s a lot of stuff that would be easier to handle if I had help. A lot of people see one man and think, what can he do to help? Although, they’re probably gonna look at you and think-”
“’Holy shit, please don’t let the Courser kill me’?” X6-88 offers.
“At least they won’t laugh,” says Preston. “That’s a silver lining.”
“Why would they laugh at someone offering to help them?”
Preston shrugs. “For some people, it’s easier than hoping. The important thing is teaching them different. That’s what I want the Minutemen to do.”
Sanctuary’s still quiet; the guard shift changes half way through breakfast, and anyone on farming roster will be out collecting eggs from the chickens, milk from the Brahmin. For now, the streets are empty. Misty. The air is still cool.
“I’m surprised you don’t overbalance,” X6-88 says. “From the weight of that heart of gold you’re carrying around. Doesn’t it get annoying?”
Preston snorts with laughter. It’s not much of a joke; it’s a lot more than he was expecting. “Guess I’ve learnt to compensate,” he says. “Maybe it makes me stronger.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“Yeah, well. Stick around a while, we’ll see. You might change your mind.”
“I won’t,” X6-88 says with certainty. “Because you’re wrong, and I know that, and one of these days you’ll realise it too. Or you’ll die. Doesn’t bother me either way.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get the message,” Preston says. “At least we’ve got some communication going. That’s progress. Hey, kitchens are opening soon, if you want to go get breakfast? They don’t mind feeding me early. I don’t always have time to stick around.”
“Will you require me to make pleasant conversation with the other residents?” X6-88 asks frostily. “Because I don’t do that.”
“I don’t know,” Preston says. “We’re doing pretty good so far.”
“Your optimism is going to drive me crazy by sunset,” X6-88 says. “I can feel it. I’m going to snap and drown you in the river. I’ll enjoy it.”
“Works for me. I have the three a.m. guard shift tomorrow; drowning sounds like a pretty good alternative. I hear it’s a peaceful way to go.”
“I’m done talking to you.”
“Fair enough,” Preston says. He’s more than a little surprised to find himself grinning. He gestures towards the communal dining hall. “You want breakfast? Smile at the servers, they’ll give you a double helping of bacon. Or…don’t smile, that’s your call. But I’m not sharing my extras. That heart of gold only gets me so far, you know? Some lines you just don’t cross.”
It might be a trick of the morning light, or the fading mist; he’s almost certain he catches a smile on his shadow’s face. It’s small. It’s a landmark in a wasteland.
Every garden starts with dust, and rain, and patience.
Let’s try something different, Preston thinks, and leads the way to breakfast.