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By K.M. Gibson

Other / Adventure

A Star in the Wastes

I was trained not to act on anything other than my orders from the one who held my contract. There is no way around it—I am a servant to my master, and whoever may hold that contract holds my existence. Don’t get me wrong—I hate that motherfucker of a ghoul Ahzrukhal, but as long as he had that paper in his hands, I couldn’t respond in any other way than with protection or loyalty to him. On the outside, I’m some sort of mindless ghoul that responds to anything Ahzrukhal demands and tells everyone else to fuck off, but I do have a mind of my own, somewhere in my head. When I saw the boss for the first time, I had some opinions about her.

When she entered the Ninth Circle, she brought along this air of independence and attitude, like she was someone who didn’t take shit from nobody. It had the same effect as a unicorn trying to look evil. I never took to anyone, especially some smoothskin. Who the hell did she think she was, wandering into Underworld? It was a city run by ghouls, inhabited only by ghouls. And if you’ve never heard of a ghoul, you fucking mole rat, we’re sorry assholes that’d received just the right amount of radiation to make our skin fall off, some of our organs melt, and our lifespans inflate, like it was some sort of sick fuck’s joke to make us suffer through that forever. Smoothskins thought we were monsters and chased us out of their towns. Yeah, there was a lot of lynching. So this city, tucked away in the ruins of the Museum of History in the heart of D.C., was a safe haven for us, and not a welcome place for a porcelain doll like her.

How the fuck did she make it in the front door without getting chased out with pitch forks and torches? Must’ve had a way with words, that one. Especially because she looked fucking weird. The kind of weird where everyone in the bar turned to her to stare, even those that couldn’t give to shits if she was a smoothskin or not. Something like her couldn’t be natural. She had this head of long, silvery blonde hair, almost as if it were white, kind of like a ghoul’s hair if it used to be yellow. You’d think that it’d give her a delicate look, but as she stalked across the floor, I saw her pitch black eyes taking in the room, like two trap pits waiting to suck in any unsuspecting idiot that dared walk near them. To top it all off, she was wearing this ridiculous vault suit, only a little dirtied and torn. Fucking fresh meat. She wouldn’t last, even with the balls she seemed to have.

Her eyes landed on me, but she didn’t give so much as a double take before she sat at the bar. I found that awfully bold too—most ghouls cowered every day when they saw me standing in the corner of the bar, watching over Ahzrukhal and his miserable hide. They had the wherewithal to know what I stood for. If my orders weren’t to stay put and leave the customers alone, I woulda torn her a fresh one and chased her all the way to the museum concourse. Every second I watched her, I grew more agitated. I wanted her the fuck outta Underworld, but there was no way I could do that. I was hoping the asshole, Ahzrukhal, would do it himself, but he encouraged her, fucking encouraged her, chattin’ her up for all she was worth.

“Ah, ghoul, human, I don’t care,” Ahzrukhal wheezed, “the caps all spend the same.”

“I’m glad we’ve established that,” she said. Her voice was smooth, but real fuckin’ cold. “Please pass the wine.”

“Certainly, ma’am,” he tried to reply smoothly (but like every ghoul, it came out like a death rattle) and he grabbed a bottle from the lower shelf behind him, placing it in front of her. “That will be twenty-five caps.”

“I’m not interested in starting any confrontations.” She popped the cork without much effort (because it had been shoved in rather poorly when it was re-bottled) and took a sip from the bottle. Not very ladylike, but Ahzrukhal didn’t exactly give her a glass, either. “You have the caps in your hand.”

“My dear girl, I am afraid I have not received payment for your beverage,” he said, his voice leaking out from him like a perpetually dying animal. Of course the kid paid him—I saw her put the caps down and his greasy hand swipe it up. That didn’t mean I was going to throw a fucking campaign for her case.

I nudged her shoulder with the barrel of my gun. “Pay.”

She looked up over her shoulder at me, and I don’t know if she was intentionally trying to intimidate me, but I found her expression hilarious. It was blank, but those black eyes were just burning with rage. Something besides Ahzrukhal had pissed in her Sugar Bombs, that was for sure.

She was a wannabe hard ass but she was smart. She pulled another handful of caps from her pocket, counted them, then placed them on the counter rather calmly, considering her circumstances. “Thank you, madame,” Ahzrukhal said.

She didn’t answer the slick bastard, but instead she took another swig of wine. “It’s quite good here,” she said, holding out the bottle and reading the label. Fuck, she was cheeky.

Ahzrukhal waved me away (the motherfucker), and I turned back to my corner, refitting my shotgun on my back. “I’m glad you take to it. It’s a 2075, Chardonnay, very well aged, if I do say so myself.”

She took another drink instead of answering.

“So,” Ahzrukhal said, that familiar tone of plotting and sick intention seeping into his voice, “what brings your business into Underworld?”

“I’m looking for my father.”

If I didn’t have the orders to keep silent, I would have scoffed. What made her think she’d find another smoothskin running around down here? It was crazy enough that she was allowed in, but two? Fucking brat. Ahzrukhal found this amusing too, for he chuckled his awful, grinding chuckle.

“And to what do you owe your belief that your father would be here?”

“I’ve been checking every place.” She took another swig. It was only wine, but she was turning out to be some sort of hard drinker.

“I have to be quite honest with you, child. If your father is still human, he would not be here, let alone ever come across this place. Thus, I have to say, I am quite confounded as to how you chanced upon this city, and how you have made your stay here without rising a disturbance.”

“I’m quite civil. It doesn’t hurt to look everywhere.”

“Oh, but it can."

“If I’m that much of a disturbance,” she said, rising off of her stool, “I’ll take my caps elsewhere.”

“I meant no offence, of course. I was only curious. Please, sit.”

She looked at the seat, then took another sip of her wine. “Not if your body guard is going to listen in on every word we utter,” she said, smooth tone dropping. She placed the half empty bottle on the counter a little less than gently, and motioned to it with distaste. “It’s a Sauvignon Blanc, and it tastes like vinegary grass. Have a nice day.”

She breezed past me, and didn’t so much as make eye contact with anyone as she pushed past the door, her icy demeanor hanging in the air. Well, I’m not a poet or anything, but that’s the only way I could describe it. The bitch was cold, but she wasn’t evil, not like Ahzrukhal. I kept my composure stoic and expressionless as he looked to me—not that I could do otherwise—and he brushed a hand over his wisps of hair, putting the small confrontation aside. I’d like to say that I was unmoved by the whole thing, but that little scene was damn well fun. A pale, fair-haired girl—smoothskin kid—riling up Ahzrukhal’s feathers. Oh yeah, I was amused, if not just a tad bit impressed. But she was out of the bar, and I was starting to feel just a bit better, just a bit more at ease, but that wasn’t the last I saw of the boss. Yeah, she and I were going to be doing a lot of business together. A hell of a thing it is, but I never got her name.

I still regret that.

The moment I stepped into the Wastes, I knew that every notion I had had of being resourceful, independent, intelligent, and strong had been childishly misplaced. I was raised in the shelter of the Vault for so long, that facing potential danger around every bend and every slope was too much to handle. I had a few close calls, but with time, I got used to hiding and running. I got used to everything so much that I suppose I became numb. I didn’t care if people helped me or not (considering they rarely did help me) and I didn’t care if people were saved or hurt because of my actions. When I was first expelled from home, I did care for the well-being of the general populace. My first experience with the Wasteland locals was to be shot at and threatened to be raped and murdered and eaten, in no particular order. Compassion can’t survive that long in a place like this.

At first, I was angry for him leaving me behind in the Vault. He had gone in the middle of the night without saying a word. He thought I would be safest there, I suppose. But no one ever left the Vault. The door hadn’t been opened since it had been closed during the nuclear war two hundred years ago. Naturally, his breaking out was a nightmare. And everyone blamed me for it. They were willing to kill me for it.

Even if I could go back there, I wouldn’t. I longed for comfort, for safety, I longed to know that my best friend Amata would be right there for me, but I knew that there was no going back to that. I belonged nowhere now. Not in Vault 101, and certainly nowhere in the Wasteland, so the only thing I had left was to find my father. Wherever he was was the only place I had left. Finding him, however, had proven more difficult than I could have imagined. The world was a lot bigger than the Vault, and no amount of reading could prepare you for how it swallows you whole.

The first human settlement I came across outside the Vault was Megaton. It was a town built around the crater that still housed the atomic bomb that never detonated. There’s something to be said for drawing closer to death for life. It had maybe a hundred residents, all of them small people, probably from generations of malnutrition. Some were menacing and wore old car parts for armour. Some wore rags and collected soda bottle caps to trade for food. And some were clean, intelligent, and avid conversationalists. Honestly, I thought I could ask for a helping hand and receive it without a moment’s hesitation.

I learned quite quickly that all of those people only spoke to others if they saw some sort of angle they could gain from. Some asked for sexual favours in return for my help. Some seemed polite enough while surreptitiously putting a price on their time (it turns out bottle caps were the currency used here). Some of them asked for much worse things in exchange for help. Then there were those who had seen him, but no one dared tell me anything in fear of something much worse than I.

After that, I left Megaton behind, and began searching for my father the hardest way possible—one step at a time. I scoured each and every crevasse of the Wasteland. Pre-war ruins, natural caves, other settlements, in old cars and decrepit shacks. If my father was only half a day ahead of me, I would surely find him in due time. But as they days steadily increased, the further and farther away he got from me, and I knew my chances of ever seeing him again had died. With nothing else, though, just looking for him every day was all that kept me going. I’d never find him, but I could not stop looking.

Then I found Underworld.

I wanted to storm from Ahzrukhal’s bar but kept my composure. I wanted to see Carol. Of all the vermin I’d met so far, she was the most human, including some of my previous bunkermates in Vault 101, even though I wasn’t sure if one could call her human anymore. I had visited her earlier in the day, and she offered me her life story from before the war in 2077. Unfortunately, she had no information of my father, a man named James from Vault 101. I couldn’t have expected anything more than that. I did learn everything there was to know about ghouls and how they functioned, however, and I was careful with this information. The fact that ghouls were vehemently opposed by humans, and they themselves had qualms of their unfortunate transformation, I was wary of how I regarded Carol after that. I wasn’t sure if she’d turn on me like everyone before her had after offering me false kindness. However, she still seemed to confront me with a certain liking, for when I stepped into her inn, she smiled at me kindly from behind her desk.

“Oh, how lovely it is to see you again!” Carol chimed in her scratchy voice as I walked through the door. “Are you looking to rent a room for the night, perhaps?”

“Yes.” I leaned on the counter. “I was wondering, though…the tall ghoul in the Ninth Circle. Who is he?”

“Oh, you must mean Charon.” She had to blink the fear away. “He’s Ahzrukhal’s personal bodyguard. He’s been here for, oh…quite a few years now. He’s very loyal to Ahzrukhal, but not by choice.”

“Not by choice. What do you mean?”

“It’s a horrible story, really,” Carol replied sadly, opening her cash register and digging out a handful of caps. She started to count them on the counter absentmindedly in front of me; either this was a show of trust, or she wanted to distract herself as she recounted the tale. “Story goes that when he was a boy, he was brainwashed into serving anyone who held his contract. Blindly, not to mention. Whatever his contract holder commands, he does.” She dumped her caps back into the register and scooped out another handful. “Who knows for how many years he’s been living his life for other people. Just a constant cycle of slavery for him.”

“How is it that he ended up here with Ahzrukhal?”

“Oh, nobody knows that but those two,” Carol said, waving a hand through the air and shaking her head slightly. “For all I know, Charon could’ve accidentally blundered into one of Azhrukhal’s greasy traps. Poor boy.”

“So, he’s strictly forbidden to do anything other than what his employer dictates?”

“In a nutshell, yes. I’m not sure if the man’s completely brainwashed, or if he really feels hate and distaste for each and every one of us. He seems to look at everybody that way, at least. He doesn’t talk to anyone other than Ahzrukhal, so there’s no real way of telling for sure.”

So, either he was your greatest enemy, or the most useful asset in a battle. “Ahzrukhal is virtually untouchable, then.”

“Yes, unless you could stomach standing up to Charon.”

I had hand-to-hand combat training, but he had a good foot on me an a couple dozen kilograms, at least. He could have wiped the floor with me, so to speak.

When I didn’t carry the conversation any further, Carol started to wring her hands. “Actually, I was thinking…I have a favour to ask of you.”

I wasn’t keen on doing people favours; no one seemed to want to do me one by helping me find my father. But I could see the unease in the way Carol fidgeted, her sharp red eyes darting from side to side. I did not cut her off, nor egg her on, but waited for her to continue.

“About Gob…”

Gob, the ghoul she loved like a son. When I first met Carol, I couldn’t help but ask her if she was the Carol who knew the ill-fated bartender back in Megaton. When Carol heard that I had met Gob, she was so delighted, asking me a plethora of questions and I tried to answer them the best I could. I honestly hadn’t converse with him all too much. He’d been one of the people that had been reluctant to help me when I asked about my father. He was harmless and spineless, but he was also quite likely a slave to the man who owned the bar, much like this Charon. The moment I had told Carol this, she had held her composure well. I’m sure that on the inside, she was simply falling apart.

“I was hoping…I know this is so much to ask of you, I know you’re trying to look for your father, but…could you bring my son home? I know it would be dangerous, taking him away from his master, but I…after you told me what happened to him, I don’t think I could bear it day to day knowing he’s unhappy.”

My automatic response would have been no, but I stopped myself before I spoke. I was a daughter, roaming the Wastes in an endless search to find my father, unwilling to help others in return for their help, expecting only kindness for my gratitude. I think I was afraid of the guilt, the blood stained hands, the chances of death, but most of all, I was worried about how it would change me. If I did all those things people asked of me, would I be the same daughter that my father had left behind? Carol was a mother who had no likely way of seeing her own son again, each bound by their livelihood and their fate. She had nothing to offer me but her hopes. She was at my mercy. We were the same.

I thought on this for a moment, and then I nodded. “I’ll help you get Gob back. But,” I interjected quickly, just as her eyes lit up, “his master, Moriarty, won’t let him go until his room and board are paid off. If you want me to get Gob out of there safely, I’m going to need a lot of caps.”

“Oh, my dear, of course!” Carol nearly sang, absolutely radiant with joy. This shocked me; I hadn’t met anyone that would have accepted such a ludicrous term so eagerly, both in the Wasteland and in the Vault. “I’m willing to give you my life savings for him! Please, if you think you can do this for me, I’ll be forever grateful.”

I hesitated. “Of course.” All the other favours and ill deeds I turned down would have been to earn the commodity of my father’s location, whereas this favour was in no way beneficial to my goal. I think that I accepted Carol’s request so easily because I could understand her misfortune. I realized that I really was selfish, wishing that others would just help me out because I was in need, but I suppose it was really me who was being unaccommodating. I wasn’t the only helpless one out there.

“Oh, thank you, thank you!” Carol said, reaching across the counter and grasping either side of my face. Her hands were so hot, and the remainder of her skin scraped against me where she touched my cheeks, but I did not pull away. The simple gesture pulled at my heart.

“I have no idea how much it will cost you to bail out Gob, but I’ll give you everything, just to be safe. This might not even cover it, but…I trust you. You’re not bad for a human, and I know I can count on you.”

This was the first time since Amata had told me to leave and never come back that I’d willingly set aside my search for my father. At the rate I was going, I was going to lose my mind sooner than later. Maybe, just maybe, I was doing this to feel human again. If I could help a mother and son find each other again, maybe I could feel like I had found what I was looking for.

Carol dipped down behind the counter, placing suitcase after suitcase down on the table in front of her. “There’s…two thousand…caps in each…of these,” she said as she placed each one down. Carol stood straight, absolutely beaming.

There were four of them. I stared. That was far too much money. And she was just willing to hand it over to me. Someone she just met. Someone she ought not trust so easily. That’s not to mean I was going to steal it from her and go back on my word. I would be cheating myself that way. But eight thousand caps. And to carry it all?

“I’ll need a backpack for these.”

“Yes, yes, let me get one for you!” I could see the exposed muscle in her face contracting as she brandished her rotten teeth in a smile. She disappeared around the corner.

She was a kind-hearted woman. It felt warm to be around someone like that. It had been so long. Maybe, after all, all I needed to do was to put my own interests on hold while I helped others in need within my capabilities. Bring back what was strongest about me. I used to protect people for a living. Could I not still do that? Return myself to a state of normality? My father would have to wait. I couldn’t find him in the way I was. I wouldn’t have wanted him to see me like that.

Carol returned with a backpack that looked older than her. She put the suitcases inside and we tested the strength of the straps. The integrity wasn’t all that great, so she offered to reinforce the bag overnight with brahmin leather.

She touched my hand again, positively beaming. “It’s getting late. You’d better stay for the night. I won’t charge you, of course, and there’ll be a free meal in it for you.”

“Thank you,” was all I could say.

Nothing was to go as planned. Nothing ever does, though, does it? It’s like a stream of water on your hand: there’s no way to tell which way it will fall until it does. I suppose it’s this factor which makes life more beautiful, for everything is unpredictable, but my fate and Charon’s weren’t going to slide off onto the beautiful side of the hand. But, if I could go back and relive those moments, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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