The air outside feels real. I know it’s also highly irradiated but the crisp cool winter breeze against my face is exactly what I needed.
I seem to have stuffed my rucksack to the bursting point with every Institute widget I could find before escaping. Which would be great if I wasn’t trying to dodge bullets with a hundred pounds of bullshit strapped to my back right now.
“Oi, look out behind ya, feckin’ gobshite!”
I turn around to see a red-haired woman with a baseball bat trounce a man two steps behind me. The left side of his face goes soft as his body collapses into the gutter. She brandishes the bloody bat in my face as she closes the gap between us.
“You better remember who I am, Vault Dweller, because I sure as shite remember you. You’re the arse who killed all me customers. And I’ll be wanting proper compensation.”
I throw my rucksack in front of her and the weight makes an audible thud on the concrete.
“Take it. Take whatever you want. Go ahead and kill me too if you want. I don’t care anymore. I’m going to the Third Rail to get shithoused.”
I turn around and continue walking East. I can hear her heave the bag behind me and her footsteps catching up.
“So that’s it then? You’re not gonna fight me, but you’ll kill a whole theater of spectators in front of me?”
“That is correct.”
She scurries around me, panting with the extra weight but determined to match my brisk pace.
“That’s fucking bollicks. Is it because I’m a wee fragile girl and you don’t want to hurt me?”
“No. I am also a woman. And you would not be the first woman I’ve killed. You’ve done me no wrong. I have. Take what you feel you deserve and be on your way. I’m tired.”
“Oh aye, you’re tired, love? We’re all tired. You think you’re some kind of mysterious stranger with a heart of gold? We’ve all got tragic backstories here. You’re nothing special.”
She stops for a moment, falling behind as I dutifully press forward to make it to Goodneighbor by nightfall.
“You know what? I think you should carry all this shite for me. I mean, this is my payment, right? Well I only accept payment in caps or Psycho, so this won’t do me any good. I’m sticking on you until I am appropriately compensated.”
I stop to look at her. Her haughty face glistens from sweat despite the winter and her matted red hair shines in the pale sun. She has one boot defiantly planted on top of abandoned loot as I stare into her eyes. I can feel a deep unspoken sadness reflect back my own. And that’s the closest thing to trust or friendship I’m willing to accept right now.
I stoop in front of her and gesture toward one of the straps so she’ll remove her boot, “Sure thing, ma’am. I’ll carry that bag for you if it’s getting too heavy.”
“Now you wait just a goddamn minute, Vault-Tec…”
We awkwardly shake hands and proceed past Boston Commons side by side.
“By the way, I’ve got a hit of Jet left if you want. I was saving it for a fight but if you need it…”
“Oh please, I’m not some charity case. I take care of my own Joneses just fine thanks,” she says as she slams a Psycho needle into her arm.
“Fine then, just thought I’d offer,” I take the final puff off my inhaler and can already feel the strain of the weight on my back easing.
She gives an approving nod as our mutual highs kick in.
“Only thing better than picking a fight is getting stoned, am i right?”
A handoff with a new connection is always tense, but there is a script to these arrangements. To the point it would be boring if it didn’t always come with a chance of murder, life imprisonment, or destitution.
First, you pick the place. Gives you the chance to scope things out and make sure your gut isn’t telling you to get. Gives you a chance to screw your head right with a couple toxics before kicking things off. He knows that of course, if he’s smart, but you’re also the one who has his cargo. So that’s his own burden to worry about. You stand your ground on that shit.
Second, you buy him a toxic when he arrives, even though he’s the one who is about to pay you. No, it doesn’t make any fucking sense and yes, it does slow down the whole process. But trading requires gestures masquerading as friendliness for most crooks of most species. So you stick to the script.
Third, you exchange pleasantries neither of you have interest in, while avoiding discussion of the cargo you’re carrying until he finishes his first toxic. At which point he will either buy you a drink or toast to your new partnership or some other overly-friendly gesture so it feels less obvious the only reason you know one another is your mutual distaste for the Confederacy.
Fourth, after this exhausting bit of social interaction, then and only then can you finally even mention the actual purpose of your meeting. Keep the actual subject matter vague. No specific credits per unit, no descriptions of cargo, no discussion of planets of origin. If he fucks up and breaks this rule, make sure he knows that you noticed, but don’t accuse him of anything yet. If he fucks up again, tell him you’re leaving but let him talk you back. If he fucks up a final time, stash the goods and lay low while finding a new connection.
Fifth, he bitches about something in order to try and lower the price. You argue back and demand what you’re owed. It could be delays, it could be damage to merchandise, it could be discomfort from Con activity, so long as it’s your fault. Any crook who doesn’t at least try to rip you off at least once is probably not a crook. So don’t trust them.
Sixth, a pissing match of some sort is required in order to display your ability to hurt him and his business before he will pay what he promised. A small display of violence to preview a much bigger violence he doesn’t want goes a long way. Make it big, make it flashy, but keep it controlled. Papa was fond of triggering a small amount of plastic explosives within their eyesight, but I’m more partial to flipping a table or smashing a glass as it requires less prep work. But this is the part where you actually have some freedom to get creative and improvise.
Finally, he agrees to the terms you had already established, perhaps even more if step six was especially impressive and you’re lucky. You have your robots tug the cargo where he wants it, and he gives you the credits on an encrypted drive. You give the toxtender an incredibly generous tip and thank them for their discretion. Everybody walks away happy.
This new connection is a Sapien man named Anthony Gates, and we’re about halfway through Step Five already. He’s young, loud, and definitely way too confident in himself and his bored looking avian bodyguard, whose colorful plumage looks uncomfortable in a tailored suit. This next part might actually be fun.
“Look man, I don’t want excuses! I want my fucking product delivered on time or otherwise I lose money which means you lose more money.” He slams his third drink onto the bar, causing snores of the old man sleeping in the corner to pause for effect.
That’s as good a cue as any.
I grab the back of his head with my left hand and he reacts by reaching into the right side of his jacket. He then resists having his face smashed into the bar, so I allow him to fling his body backward by letting my arm go limp while I kick his barstool with the heel of my right foot instead. He falls flat onto his back and while the wind is knocked out of him, his pistol scattering sadly across the hard floor.
I belt out an overly friendly laugh and say, “Whoa, careful there friend, we haven’t had that much to drink!”
The toxtender glares at us. The bodyguard is off his seat. But I’m already extending a friendly hand to his client, whose red face glares up at me as I keep mine resolutely, frustratingly pleasant. Eventually he accepts my hand and his defeat. I guess this one is a fast learner.
Jackie’s on the way with the tugboat. I made enough credits to pay for half my return circuit to Remidian IV. He’s got enough product to make back three times what he just paid me. And the toxtender has enough money to quit and work somewhere else if they’ve finally had enough dealing with toxed assholes. Everybody walks away happy.
Every day I ask the old man when I can leave, and every day he tells me to relax and get to know his “family” better. It sickens me. These are the people who kidnapped my son. Murdered my husband. And then had the gall to raise him as their own. These are the people who made him into their image of “Mankind Redefined”.
He’s not my son. He’s their son. The Institute.
I’ll never get another chance to raise a child. No more hopes of first steps, first words, first day in school. Nate will never get a chance to teach him how to swim. I’ll never teach him how to read. He’ll never know his cousins or his aunts or grandparents. He’s gone.
They have surveillance everywhere in this place. And when I met with the acting director of Synth Retention this week he didn’t make a secret about it. Hell he even told me I was going to be monitored even more heavily, the moment I met him. Looking at the monitors, it’s obvious they’ve been watching my every move since I woke up. There are cameras watching the Vault. Watching the museum at Concord. Watching Diamond City. Watching Sanctuary. These people have never known a life without scrutiny, so why should they think anyone else deserves one?
But I’ve also been watching them. On the surface they are very clean, very pleasant, very polite, very advanced. But with the smallest degree of inconvenience they lash out at those beneath them. Either those of lower rank or the synths they’ve created. In fact they are constantly threatening the synths around here. No wonder the ones who gain free will try to escape this place.
Right now I can hear a man screaming outside my door.
“You call this floor clean?! Maybe you need a memory wipe and reprogramming. Although at this point it may be more useful to scrap you for parts.”
“My apologies, sir. I will recalibrate my receptors and disinfect the floor to your liking.”
I peeked through the door. I haven’t seen any open violence here just yet, but I can feel it bubbling below the surface. It reminds me of living with my father, or Kellogg’s memories with his dad, or some terrible clusterfuck of the two. Waiting for the explosion is always worse than the act itself.
Right now I’m doing everything I can to remember my training as a counselor, although I specialized in development rather than trauma. I can feel the crushing weight of hypervigilance in my bones. It’s somehow stronger than even out navigating the Wastes. At least there conflict happens quickly, in the open, and resolves with finality. Usually in less than a minute.
Here, my jaw aches from holding my tongue in every incessant social interaction. My joints creak from restraining my reactions to angry words from men with power. My heart wavers from the unreasonable demands of the constant flow of epinephrine.
Of course, knowing that intellectually doesn’t really do me many favors. I ran out of Daytripper and cigarettes two days ago. My knuckles are bruised and scraped from reacting to small sounds in my sleep. I tried drinking until I passed out last night, but that finished off the last of my vodka.
I should be working on how to escape from this place, but I’ve also had a hard time getting motivated for much of anything. Finding Shawn has been my sole motivation since I escaped from the Vault. So now…what exactly is there?
Do I go back to my home, where there’s an overzealous militia eager to make me their General? Do I stay here, where “Father” wants me take over for the dirty work Kellogg can’t do anymore? Do I work for the Railroad as Codename: Professor and work to destroy the only thing keeping a shred of my past alive anymore? Go work with Nick solving mysteries, knowing all the while my mystery has no solution?
Maybe…maybe once I get out of here I can just find a quiet place where nobody will bother me. I can salvage an old typewriter and work on my writing. Try to create something my barren womb couldn’t. Maybe that reporter in Diamond City might even publish some of my work in exchange for a few caps. Nate always liked my writing.
I miss Nate. I miss my mom. I miss my sisters. I miss my nephews.
I don’t know what I have to live for anymore.
But I still don’t want to die. Especially in this place.
It’s a new year and I have found Shawn. Except there is no Shawn. Shawn is a synth. The Shawn I see in the last of Kellogg’s memories when I dream isn’t real. He’s limp and lifeless in a glass room where “Father” can tinker with him. The body of the child I never truly had turned out to be nothing but a hobby for an old man.
The old man claims he is my Shawn. He says Kellogg kidnapped him sixty years ago, not ten. And even though I wanted to say he was full of shit, even though I wanted to kill him, I couldn’t do it when I looked in his eyes. Those eyes are still the same.
But if they can put those same eyes into that little boy, who is to say they couldn’t put them in an old man?
Why would Kellogg look nearly identical from my memory of Nate’s murder from when I murdered Kellogg if those dates were supposed to be sixty years apart?
Once again it keeps coming down to counting the dates.
This…Father…who claims to be my son, he was the one who released me from the Vault. He was the one who put Kellogg in my crosshairs. He has been orchestrating nearly every encounter I’ve had since I woke up. And with his ability to make robots indistinguishable from humans, it’s likely I have no idea how deep the rabbit hole truly goes.
I hacked into his terminal and was able to retrieve Kellogg’s personnel files. They truly do go back over sixty years, including records of his augmentations and longevity. Either this is false information meant to confirm “Father” or it’s the truth. Unfortunately I have no way of knowing at the moment. And that old man who claims he’s my son continued to use him even after learning what he’d done.
He wants me to stay here. He wants me to see what he’s accomplished. He wants me to be proud of him.
That’s why he woke me up.
Because he was curious if I would survive.
He was curious if Kellogg or I would die.
He was curious if I would find a way into the Institute.
But the old man stacked the deck in my favor. All these scripted events and breadcrumbs have been strings pulling me along a story he wants to tell. It would be touching if I wasn’t so manipulative.
I don’t know how to leave this place but the old man keeps saying I’m not a prisoner. He also insists I meet the department heads of his Institute before discussing anything further. He wants me to see his justifications for his actions.
This is not the first time I’ve been trapped living somewhere dangerous. I know how to play this game. Smiles and courtesies and calculations and stories. Make them feel safe while maintaining vigilance.
I don’t know what else to do now that there is no Shawn for me to Find. All I can do is survive and observe.
Papa grew up here during the Third Space Race, the last time Sapiens pretended to give a shit about spacing. He used to play those old vids on a loop whenever he was feeling down.
You could always tell how he was feeling based on what vids were playing on our ship.
Papa had an immense, dense bank of computer storage in the Dodger dedicated solely to old Sapien vids, mostly from the Media Infancy era.
Outdated News Vids usually meant we were out of money. Cartoons meant things were good and life was easy for a bit. British comedies meant we were feeling rebellious, probably at the Cons’ expense. Mystery shows meant something needed fixing on the ship or Papa had a new idea he wanted to research.
Grandma would always complain about all the noise of the ship. But she never turned off the vids. She loved them the same way she loved Papa. Resentfully in the open, but with kindness in secret.
That’s the only Earth I actually understand. Pre-Con Earth still doesn’t look like a place I would want to live on, but at least it makes a sort of sense, in easily-digestible chunks.
You would think growing up with constant vids would make the bombardment of walking out into the street from Customs easier, but there’s never only one thing begging for your attention. Right now even with my earbuds I can still hear an advert for shaving cream, an announcement about curfews, continuing requests for other ships getting a Confederate shakedown, and a looping trailer for something called Martian Marshalls that keeps making explosions. I thumb down a cab and try my best to inhale and exhale slowly through gritted teeth.
The driver is a reptilian biped wearing a tank top and pinstriped pajama pants. Their vertical pupils eye me hungrily when I say, “If you can find me the closest tox bar with no Cons I’ll pay you double. Double that if it’s quiet.”
I peek down as we lift off the street, whizzing around a skyline that’s nothing like what I grew up watching. If it weren’t for the Statue of Liberty, I wouldn’t even recognize it.
“Intoxicants are one of the universal signs of intelligence,” Grandma used to say. At which point Papa would likely whisk me away and tell me about ancient Sapien agriculture and it’s connections to ethanol.
It’s not like she was drunk all the time. Who could afford it?
But because people are generally cowards when it comes to crime, intoxicants are part of the parcel. So she taught me how to order toxics and still keep my wits about me.
“Always keep it simple, Peewee. You want the toxtender’s good will, and they don’t like people being pissy about how they do their job. When toxtenders don’t like someone, they remember them.”
The driver was more than happy with my double-double tip, and I was pleased with the quiet basement bar they found for me.
“I’ll take a vodka and soda, with a cannabinoidinhalant please.”
One of my best rehearsed lines.
The toxtender looks mammalian, with a thin semi-translucent fur making distinctive markings on their face and forearms. Their “mammalian assets” are proudly on display in a shimmering dark leather top, but the fashion seems out of place in a dive like this. The toxtender takes my credit chips without words, for which I am immensely thankful.
I sit at the bar and fiddle with my comm nervously as I wait for my toxics. I check the corners of the bar but see only an old Sapien sleeping on a back booth, his hat resting next to his gray head. The only noise to drown out his gentle snores is one lone vid screen, scrolling the news at a minimal volume. It’s quiet, but not silent. Which is perfect.
A tray is silently brought to me and I toss back the drink and take a large hit off the inhaler.
“Another please,” I say to the toxtender, who continues to serve in silence.
I can feel my heart finally beginning to slow down as I fiddle with my comm settings. But I can never get these damn holographic buttons to actually recognize my fingers. Papa used to blame our calluses.
“Fuck this,” I mutter in exasperation, slamming the home button projected through my palm with my free hand until, finally, I hear a chirp in response, “Jackie, can you contact our employer for me? Send him my current location and try to sound intimidating if you can.”
“Right away, boss,” a tinny distant voice shouts from my hand.
“The wonders of technology,” the toxtender scoffs while bringing my next round.
I smirk at them as I raise my glass, “To your health, kind one.”
I swear, toxics and money are the only things worth being terran-side.
“General, if it’s alright with you, Minuteman Long and I will bunker down in Tenpines Bluff for the night. That way we can let them know The Minutemen are finally back.”
His words barely even register. Nick and I have been talking for hours while the two men from Sanctuary have been inside picking for parts. While the two of us have been counting days. Even though I promised myself I wouldn’t.
I give Preston a weak salute and he seems pleased. Jun is looking at his feet, rifle clicking away in his hands once again. Preston takes him under his own arm and gently guides him. In the still air of a fresh kill, I can hear Jun’s quiet whispers to himself
“I did it just like I said I would I promised him I promised him I would make myself useful I promised him not to be sad I promised we would get there I promised…”
In my backpack are military-grade circuit boards, a Biometric Scanner, and a Sensor Module. The last three things we need to Find Shawn.
Which brings us to The List. The mutated fruits of our efforts to make sense out of nonsense. I read it over and over from my Pip-Boy, only half paying attention to the road while Nick leads the way back to Sanctuary.
The Day The Bombs Fell — October 23, 2077.
The Day I Woke Up. Saved Sanctuary Settlers. — October 23, 2287
The Day I Met Nick. — October 27, 2287
The Day I Killed Kellogg. — October 29, 2287
The Day My Brain Got Fucked — November 5, 2287
RELIABLE BUT NOT REMEMBERED
I return to Sanctuary for the Power Armor. While helping the settlers search empty houses I opened Mr. Jahani’s root cellar and was attacked by ghouls. My former neighbors. Reportedly I fled the scene as soon as they were dead wearing the power armor in exchange for my vault suit. — November 24, 2287
Children of Atom from the Glowing Sea report meeting someone in Power Armor looking for a scientist. Presumably this is also the day I met Virgil. — November 28, 2287
Nick finds my barely conscious body on the edge of the Glowing Sea. He says when we woke up from the Brain Fuck I didn’t trust him and went off by myself. Sounds plausible. — November 30, 2287
We arrive in Diamond City. Doc Crocker does what he can. — December 2, 2287
REMEMBERED BY NOT RELIABLE
The Day I Killed The Courser — December 10, 2287
We arrive in Goodneighbor — December 11, 2287
We find The Railroad — December 13, 2287
We arrive in Sanctuary — December 23, 2287
I wake up in Sanctuary — December 27, 2287
I can’t believe I slept through fucking Christmas.
I already knew Kellogg was sharing space in my brain, but the thought of other people knowing makes me feel contaminated.
I hurl my empty 10mm at Codsworth and his metallic body lets out a clang as the pistol falls to the floor. All three of us are silent, Garvey still behind the doorway with his laser musket aimed at my chest.
“Get out of my room, Codsworth,” I say flatly, “I need to talk to Minuteman Garvey.”
My blood is churning into foam and my ears are ringing, but I maintain my poker face. The robot follows my orders, because this is my house.
“At attention, soldier! Double Time!” I bark to Garvey.
He immediately lowers his weapon and stands at my feet. I stare him up and down with my best impersonation of drill sergeants from the stories Nate told me.
“Soldier, what you just heard is classified information. And I need to make sure it stays classified. Do you understand?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
Damn, I didn’t expect that to be so satisfying.
“Minuteman Garvey, I need a full status report on the teleportation project and any remaining needed hardware.”
I couldn’t stand still in that creepy place, so I’ve taken Preston Garvey and Jun Long on a milk run to get the last missing components and provide an assist to another settlement nearby, Tenpines Bluff.
I know Garvey can at least aim that musket of his, but I’m not so sure about Jun. As we passed through Concord and saw the rotting corpses of the very first men I killed being picked apart by crows, Jun’s rifle clicked in his shaking hands. I shared a bit of my personal Day Tripper stash, at least then he can keep his hands steady.
“I don’t see how you expect to be in fighting condition while using recreational substances,” Garvey says disapprovingly.
“Better living through chemistry, right Jun?” I reply after taking a handful of pills, “If I couldn’t get stoned on a consistent basis I’m pretty sure I would have died a long time ago.”
Jun nervously accepts my offer while stealing glances at Garvey, “I’m sorry. I promise to make myself useful. Nobody likes a grown man feeling sorry for himself.”
I give Jun a brief hug. Chalk it up to being stoned and him having a vague resemblance to my Nate. Dogmeat barks playfully as we leave Concord and make our way Northeast.
Tenpines Bluff turns out to be a tiny shack with a garden and two residents, but we quickly learn they’ve been getting attacked by feral ghouls at the nearby Satellite Olivia Station. So we make our way Northwest through the sparse “woods” toward the huge satellite dish in the distance.
“This is exactly why the Commonwealth needs the Minutemen,” Garvey puffs up, “Most folks are just trying to get by and just need a hand once in a while.”
“At least now we can kill two birds with one stone,” I joke, “A military site is bound to have all the hardware we need.”
It’s dusk when we approach the site. That’s when I hear them. Those awful sucking/shrieking scream they make with what’s left of their vocal chords. I can handle Raiders and Super Mutants and all kinds of other shit that tries to kill me in this world. But zombies still freak me the hell out.
I hold up my fist and direct my companions to take cover on a nearby hill. Once they’re on their bellies, Dogmeat and I creep forward. I can’t see any of them, but I know they’re in there. I lob a molotov into the middle of the courtyard to get the party started.
That’s when everything gets strange.
Time itself seems to slow down and I see them. Eight shambling corpses crawling out of Mr. Jahani’s basement in their tattered rags. The smallest one wears nothing but a baseball cap and I stare into his eyes as I put a bullet between them. The screams echo all around me.
Is that Ms. Rosa? Was that her little Louis? Oh god what have I done?
My pistol falls from my hands and I run for the big Oak tree in the middle of the cul-de-sac as they swarm me. Decaying fingers gouging and scratching. Putrid breath churning my stomach. Screams deafening my ears and chilling my bones.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t know I’m so sorry oh god please”
Why didn’t I make sure they got into the Vault too? How could I take cover while others got burned alive? Why did I have to be the one who lived?
Dogmeat drags Mr. Peters off my leg and rips out his throat. But…but that’s not right? I thought I lost Dogmeat at the Fort Hagen? Where did he come from?
A red flash illuminates the sky and suddenly Mrs. Peters collapses onto my chest.
Where did that come from? What is happening?
I fish my combat knife out my boot and stab Mrs. Donoghue in the head. She’s still wearing that beautiful blouse I asked her to borrow.
It’s hard to see through the tears and the hands grasping my face, so I just keep stabbing and punching blindly. I don’t know how long we struggled, but eventually I was the only one left moving.
Once everything goes still, I vomit on my hands and knees, staring at chunks of half-digested Sugar Bombs and Nuka Cola.
Dogmeat’s cold wet nose against my arm makes me jump and I thrust him away before I can apologize. He whimpers but comes back to lick my outstretched hand.
That’s when it slowly dawns on me that I’m not actually in Sanctuary Hills. Because that is a giant satellite dish. And these ghouls are not my former neighbors. They don’t look anything like them.
I hear the flick of a match behind me and I snatch my pistol from the ground and whip around. It’s Nick!
“Well kid, that settles it. I’d say it’s past time we put our heads together again and try to get some answers. No matter how grim they might be.”
“I thought you might like to know your usual cup of coffee is waiting for you in Master Shawn’s room.”
Coffee. Yes. Coffee. How long has it even been since I had an actual cup of coffee?
For a moment when I opened my eyes, I thought it was all back to normal. Lying here, in his bed. Waking up in his house. Getting coffee from his robot. I actually smiled to myself. I actually thought for a moment Nate would walk back to bed from the shower and hold me in his arms like he always did before. I stumble across the hall into Shawn’s room for my coffee and realize it’s been meticulously reconstructed.
“Codsworth, how much progress has the town made on my schematics?”
A deep voice answers instead, “We’re only a few key components away before we can make the last installation and fire it up, General.”
It’s Preston Garvey, the Minuteman. He tips his black hat toward me with pride.
“Stop calling me General. How is that possible,” I ask, “It’s only been a few hours.”
Codsworth rotates his eye stalks to look at Garvey, then back at me, “Actually mum, you’ve been asleep for nearly 96 hours. Master Valentine became concerned so he said he was going to find you a Doctor. A Doctor Amari, specifically.”
My heart is shooting fast and my head feels light. I get that heavy stone in my stomach that tells me something has already gone wrong.
“But that doesn’t make sense. I’ve had longer recoveries than this and Nick has never taken off before…”
Wait. What if they drugged me and did something to Nick? What if this sick cult they’ve created demands sacrifices or something?
I can reach my pistol in my bedroom in two steps. Turn around with one. Shoot on two. GO!
The Robot and Minuteman realize what I’m about to do two seconds too late. I’ve got my back to my bedroom corner with pistol drawn before they even make it down the hall.
“Wait! Please don’t shoot us, Mum! I have proof!”
Codsworth stands in front of Garvey, who has taken cover behind the doorway. He reaches into his holoplayer and slowly extends his metal hand to me, “Master Valentine said there was a…a possibility you might need reassurances.”
I slam the tape into my PipBoy and within a few moments I can hear…me? Why does my voice sound all deep and gravelly like that?
“Awfully nice place you got here. I bet it was something before the bombs fells. Picket fences, green grass, a cul-de-sac where everyone has 2.5 kids and a dog. Too bad none of you people knew how to appreciate what you had.”
“Shut the fuck up!”
No. Wait. That’s me.
“Are you a sad Momma Bear now? Sad about your dead husband and your lost kid? That’s the problem with families, they’re always vulnerable no matter how strong you are.”
“Shut the fuck up or I’ll kill you again!”
“Only way to do that, doll. And I don’t think you’ve got the guts.”
There’s some kind of scuffle in the recording and then a gunshot. Then I hear Nick.
“Goddammit, somebody get me a mechanic and get rid of this fucking gun!”
The tape clicks off.
That’s when I realize the gun in my hands is unusually light, and sure enough the clip has been emptied already.
I was with those railroad children for an entire week while they slept in a sewer playing Church Crypt Clubhouse. But it’s over now. I got the code. They got the chip. That was the deal.
Desdemona tried to give me a mission before I left but I told her the only thing I cared about was finding my baby and getting the fuck out of there. I’m not here to play secret agent. I’m just thankful Tinker Tom knew what he was doing and they didn’t get us killed.
Nick and I sat on a park bench looking out to sea after we left. The salty air was a refreshing change from living in a sewer with kids calling me Codename: Professor. Nick lit two cigarettes and handed one to me.
I thanked him and asked with a smirk, “What’s the point of a robot smoking anyway?”
“Just a bad habit I picked up I guess. Goes with the outfit. Gotta put out a proper image to be a proper gumshoe, you know. But what about you, kid? Where are we going to build this enormous contraption of yours? We’re gonna need the resources and labor of an entire town if we want to get this done.”
“Funny you should mention that. Did I ever tell you about my first day out of the Vault?”
It’s a two-day journey from the church back to Sanctuary, but thankfully the day was uneventful. I figure these people owe me one since I saved their skins and gave them my old neighborhood.
It’s funny, according to my older entries I went back there once to retrieve power armor for that trip through the Glowing Sea, but I have absolutely no fucking memory of that whatsoever. Okay, maybe “funny” isn’t the word for it. I tried to ask Nick if he knew anything about it, but he just got quiet and changed the subject.
We made camp along the overpass, high above the ground and safe inside a hollowed out trailer. Nick eyed me intensely as I grilled a slab of molerat meat, sipping my lukewarm Nuka-Cola and vodka.
“Your story about those Minutemen has got me thinking a lot about the first town I encountered after The Institute tossed me out like garbage.” He stared into the fire, making his glass eyes seem hollow, the illuminated irises barely visible as he furrowed his brow.
I flipped the steak onto an emptied out Fancy Lads box and began cutting bites with my hunting knife, “With a freshly wiped memory that must have been a helluva rude awakening, huh?”
“You don’t know the half of it! Here I am, waking up in a literal trash heap, with a mechanical body, believing myself to be a cop from your time. Needless to say, I…well I panicked a little.” His hands shake as he pinches a cigarette out of his coat.
I let out a sardonic laugh, “Boy that’s relatable. What did you do?”
“The only thing I could do. I ran, until I finally came across a tiny town. It’s a wonder they didn’t shoot me on sight, a naked metal man screaming toward them.” The image made us both laugh.
“The first human who ever talked to me was a young boy. I think his name was…Jim. He was full of questions. And answers, at least for someone who had no idea where or when he was. Pretty soon the whole town came out to marvel at the mechanical man. They treated me pretty decent once they realized I wasn’t a threat.”
I gave Nick a smile. He’s one of the only people I know who remembers what it was like before The Day. “Prewar” as everyone else here calls it. I began to unroll my sleeping bag as I said to him, “Maybe we could go back there some time and say hello.”
Wrong. You fucked up, Dori.
Nick leapt from his seat and kicked the campfire, sparks flying everywhere. I instinctively drew my pistol and pointed it directly between his eyes.
“I CAN’T because they’re all fucking DEAD! MURDERED by raiders like they were nothing but animals, and all I could do was RUN AWAY! Like a FUCKING COWARD!”
He punched the side of the trailer and a long, low hum echoed inside our shelter. He finally speaks again, in a low whisper. And I finally lower my pistol.
“I’m supposed to be able to Protect and Serve. I know I’m not the real Nick Valentine, but his memories are all I’ve got. And you would think a cop would be able to take out a few punks with guns but I just…I had no idea. I didn’t know this brave new world had such people in it. I thought I could take my time, do a little farming, live an easy life out in the country and heal.”
Neither of us knew what to say. Nick shuffled his way toward the entrance of the trailer and sat down, standing guard for me to sleep. I poured unfiltered water over what remained of the fire.
“Doesn’t matter,” he finally muttered, “that was probably a hundred years ago, anyway.”
We didn’t talk much the next day. We passed the old drive-in. And that diner where I killed those two chem pushers. Once we reached Concord I began to worry. What if these people didn’t make it?
They asked for my help setting up camp and I just left them there. And why can I not remember going there before? Were they all dead? Was it so traumatic I just blocked it out? Are we about to walk into a horror show? Or maybe even worse, a new raider camp?
But as we cross the Red Rocket station I hear a familiar bark. It was Dogmeat!
“Well I’ll be damned,” Nick chuckled, “He’s been waiting for you to come home this whole time.”
I threw my arms around him before realizing he had some sort of “armor” made out of old tires and sharpened bolts. On the side somebody had written “Minuteman Dogmeat”. So that Minuteman guy must still be alive!
Dogmeat happily trotted ahead, leading us to the wooden bridge which was now heavily fortified. The Minuteman hopped from his guard post and waved back toward the houses.
“Hey everyone! The General is back! Here comes the General!”
Nick elbowed me in the ribs and muttered, “Kind of an overly enthusiastic hero’s welcome, don’t you think?”
The Minuteman ran down the bridge toward us, “General, permission to shake your hand?”
I stammer for a moment while Dogmeat bounds around the three of us, “Um, yes, sure. Uh, at ease, soldier.”
He escorts me over the bridge after giving me an eager and firm handshake. At least a dozen people are there to meet us at the guard towers and they all salute me as I approach. Which is…weird? What the hell is with this General business? Did something happen when I was here last time?
Where the Sumners’ house used to be is now a basketball court and playground. I pull the Minuteman to the side so we can hopefully talk privately. But everyone keeps staring at me with a creepy expression of adoration. I don’t even recognize half of these fucking people. What gives?
I look at the Minuteman’s uniform and hope the name stitched on it is actually his because I can’t remember it, “Um, listen Mister…Garvey? The reason I’m here is because I found a way to get to my son. But it’s going to require a lot of power and a lot of space. And I’m going to need your help.”
After many praises and cheers and way too much attention from everyone, I asked Garvey if he could give me some damn space. Everyone else leaves but he leads me along the road, insisting on showing me what they’ve done with Ms. Rosa’s home.
Finally Garvey lets me go to my own home. Which is apparently a diner now.
“As I live and breathe! Good evening mum!”
Codsworth. Of course.
“Now I realize the home looks a bit of a fright but don’t you worry Mum. Master Long and I have seen to it that yours and Master Shawn’s rooms are expertly prepared for your return. Um, where is Master Shawn, mum? Is he with you? Did you find him?”
I turn down the hallway to our bedrooms and my heart stops, “Codsworth, I need you to shut the fuck up right now and tell me what the hell this is!”
I’m just gonna put a picture in here because honestly I can’t even deal with this shit right now. I’m going to bed. I’ll write again when I get some answers.
As soon as we walked through the door, Nick and I were blinded by floodlights.
“Halt Outsider. We’ve been following you since you left the Commons. You have exactly one chance to answer truthfully before we blast you apart. Who are you and what do you want?”
I lowered my pistol and tried to deescalate with the desperate mom routine. Cry. Talk. Find Shawn.
“Please, I’m trying to find The Railroad. I have spent months trying to track down my baby. He was kidnapped by The Institute. I have murdered every single agent of theirs across the Commonwealth. I have had my brain scooped open and contaminated with a psychopath just so I could gather some basic intel about them. I have been to The Glowing Sea and back again to talk to a sentient Super Mutant who used to be their top scientist so I could get schematics. And now, finally, after all this fucking time, I just need this Courser Chip decoded so I can break in and Find Shawn.”
The floodlights went dark. As vision crept back into my corneas I could see a raised platform above us. On it was an olive skinned woman with white hair like mine, pointing a minigun directly at my chest. Next to her, a white redheaded woman smoking a cigarette and eyeing me with suspicion. In the corner, a boy in a blue jacket and newsie cap hiding his face. And on the stairs, blocking my path, a white man in Aviators wearing a plain white tee and jeans.
He was the first to speak, “The Courser Killer finally graces us with her presence.”
The redhead shot him an annoyed look and snapped back to me, “So it’s true then. You’ve actually seen a courser. And you killed it? And you recovered a chip from it’s brain?”
I pulled the cold metal component out of my bra, where I’d been hiding it ever since Dr. Amari recovered it. I held it flat in my palm as the redhead eyed it closely. Suddenly her eyes grew wide and she snapped back to attention, barking orders.
“Glory, lower your weapon. Drummer Boy, go get Tinker Tom. Deacon, I want every piece of intel you’ve gathered on our new friend. On the double, go!”
Glory eased her minigun slightly and stood at ease while the two boys clambered past each other into a hallway behind the leader.
Nick and I carefully approached the women on the platform, chip still in my hand. The redhead took a long final drag of her cigarette before flicking it away.
“I’m Desdemona, leader of The Railroad. Sorry about the rude welcome but you are about to become the only outsider who has ever set foot in our headquarters. But before I can allow that, I must ask you something crucial: Would you risk your life for your fellow man? Even if that man is a synth?”
A loud laugh escaped my mouth before I could compose myself. I thought about it for a minute. Truthfully, I had no desire to risk my life for anyone. Synth or human or otherwise. Had I put myself into dangerous situations for others? Sure. But always with ulterior motives. Find Shawn. The rest is secondary.
“Maybe I could answer that question for you: Yes. This woman risks her life every day for at least one synth. Not only did she rescue me from a sealed vault, she even managed to fast talk our safe passage out of there when things got too hot. And believe you me, you’d much rather be her ally than her enemy.”
Nick placed a hand on my shoulder and gave it an affection squeeze. Desdemona and Glory both seemed impressed.
Sure, I stick my neck out for Nick all the time. But that’s because I need Nick to Find Shawn. What would I do if I didn’t need him anymore? What happens after I Find Shawn?
A red light flashed, then we followed Desdemona through the hallway into a large open crypt-turned-military-operation. All eyes were on me and Nick.
“We’re going to need time to decrypt this Courser Chip of yours and make sense of these…very crudely drawn schematics. In the meantime, Deacon and I will brief you on everything we know about the Institute. I have a feeling we could be great allies. Welcome to The Railroad.”