Wasteland's Most Wanted
the car exploded, shrapnel shot everywhere, and it destroyed the
generator powering Eulogy Jones’s house. In the few days that I
spent in the slave pen, I talked to one of the children on the other
side of the fence. He’d told me he’d heard there was a terminal
from inside Eulogy’s home that powered all of the slave collars,
near and far. When that generator was destroyed, the lights on all
the others’ collars dimmed out. Our collars emitted a high pitched
whine sounded, then faded.
Now was our chance.
There was a woman in the cage with us who had a spare bobby pin. She claimed the slavers didn’t bother to search her hair for such an object, considering she was a ghoul, and had little hair left to begin with. She pulled it from her tresses and handed it over to Gob once I suggested my idea. Gob moved over to the gate and began to work the lock while we all listened to the battle wage. With the flood lights out and only the fires in the handful of barrels in the yard to see by, I could just barely make out Charon as he fought. It was more troubling knowing at any moment a stray bullet could catch him upside the head than the fact that if we escaped, he would likely shoot us down.
But would he? Would Eulogy have ordered him to kill his merchandise?
“Gob,” I called out in a whisper, and everyone turned to me. I hesitated in my next words, but I reassured myself that if I were to die now, I’d have it no other way than by Charon. “Let me go first. If he kills me, stay inside the fence, all right?”
It was a silent and unanimous agreement, but Gob hesitated before giving me the right of way. The outer gate’s lock had been shattered by gunfire from Charon’s attackers, and the door tilted open slightly. I crept to the gate, my eyes stayed trained on Charon’s back the entire time. He was backing his way to his post.
I laid a hand on the gate, still watching Charon. I’d stopped breathing and my mouth had gone dry. Would you have done differently? I thought, thinking on my father. I thought I knew him, but I had no idea what he would have done in my position. I believe it’s become obvious at this point that Charon was more than incidental to me. I wouldn’t hold it against him if he made a move to kill me. But I really hoped he wouldn’t.
When the hinges squeaked, my heart jumped. This was life or death now.
I hope you know that you were my friend, I thought, as he whipped around and held the barrel of his shotgun in my face.
I didn’t squeeze my eyes shut or flinch away. I waited for him to pull that trigger. Instead of watching the gun, I kept my eyes on him. It was dark, but I could make out his eyes on me. I think I stopped breathing. He didn’t fire. He suddenly moved his gun away from me towards the back, and aimed at Gob and the others. I still didn’t breathe, although I knew that if he did not shoot me, he would not shoot them. Just as quickly as he had turned on me, he turned away from them, keeping his eyes on the battle ahead.
My relief was heavy, but I felt a pang of disappointment. No, he hadn’t overridden his orders, he didn’t see me or Gob, he only saw slaves. There was nothing I could do for him without that contract.
I looked over my shoulder and waved to the others to follow. We kept our heads low as we made our advance across the path. I was going to try and lead them to safety, but I didn’t want to. Not then, at least. What I really wanted to do was find Charon’s contract and take it back.
We came to the nearest wall and we ducked behind it for cover. The fight was a disorganized blunder. Those who took cover shot blindly over it, not aiming at all, shooting friend and foe alike, though more often than not nothing at all. The mercenaries seemed to have a better grip on basic tactics, though some of them still found themselves in close combat and clearly knew nothing more than what they’d learned from pub brawls. Eulogy Jones was hanging back, armed with two magnums. The shots were loud, but apparently quite inaccurate. He fired often, but after twelve shots, he had to pause and reload. I was waiting for the right moment to crawl around the wall and sneak past to battle to the front entrance when Charon shouted: “Heads up!”
My first reaction was to look his way. It was a relief to hear him speak, say anything. But I should have looked about instead. A man was kneeling down in the middle of the tumult, loading a fat missile into a very large launcher on his shoulder.
I tried to herd the slaves back towards the pen, away from impending doom, but some of them spooked and ran in, hoping to get around the fight. I called after them, but I had no choice but to keep going. When I was close to the slave pen again, Charon grabbed me by the arm roughly, then threw me to the ground beneath him. I tried to fight him off, thinking he was trying to attack me, but he shouted “Stay down!” and pressed his weight on top of my shoulders.
A loud blast erupted in the cold, dark night, and I stopped being able to see or hear for a moment. I thought I was going to die. The sound—when I could hear again—was overwhelming. I could feel the tremors in my chest, shaking my bones. And the heat. The heat.
A few moments passed before Charon stood and gave me my freedom again. I stayed sprawled on the ground, but I lifted myself up by my arms to survey the damage. Charon and Gob were unscathed. Others were scattered everywhere, some dead, some burning. Gob knelt beside me. “Hey, you okay?”
But I felt sicker than I had before. A fatigue so prominent took over me that I could barely stand. With shaking knees I drew up, then Charon collapsed. He was huddled against the chain fence, withdrawn into a tight ball, looking more vulnerable that I had ever thought I would see him. “What—?”
“There,” Gob said, pointing.
Eulogy’s twisted body smoldered on the ground a few yards away, part of his body burnt from the blast that had blown away Paradise Falls.
Gob and I talked infrequently while in the pen, but he had told me of the events passed, how he and Charon had arrived in Paradise Falls. The most terrifying detail of this story, however, was Charon’s reaction to our separation. His description of his incapacitation was horrific in that a world where Charon felt apart was improbable. Gob didn’t know of what was going through his mind, but Charon was unresponsive until his contract was mentioned.
I staggered over to Jones’s body, even though Gob protested. I searched the corpse’s pockets. No contract. But there was a key.
I ran for Eulogy’s office, Gob calling out my name as I went. The integrity of the building had started to give way, a large chunk of it missing from where the explosion had gone off. The door tore off its hinges when I went to open it. With no electricity, it was nearly impossible to see inside. I turned on the Pip-Boy light. There, in the far corner, was Eulogy’s safe.
A support beam groaned with the effort of holding up the ceiling. I ran, tripping and sliding on my knees, trying to jam the key home. Finally I disengaged the lock, then tore open the door to search the contents of the safe. Guns, knick knacks, pre-war money, and Charon.
I swept up the paper and tore out of the building as fast as I could, the support beam giving one final creak as it started to cave in. The door was right there, I had my hand on it—
A chunk of cement landed on my back. It shoved me out the door, landing on my ankle. Though it agonized to do so, I wormed under the debris, but it would not relent. Then Gob was there next to me, hauling the weight off of my leg high enough for me to slip out. I was just barely able to stand and run from the theatre as it finally gave way, the outer wall collapsing forward, missing us by feet, a dust cloud billowing out into the sky.
I came back over to Charon, feeling old and decrepit, and fell clumsily to my knees in front of him. “Charon!” He didn’t look up, so I tried pushing his knee. He still didn’t react, so I waved the paper childishly in his face, and he slowly looked up.
Just presenting his paper soul to him was comforting to me. I’d thought that if he saw the paper, he would know what to do. So much was left unsaid, and every time the moment presented itself for me to say anything to him, I never did.
“Come on, I think someone’s coming,” Gob said from beside us
“Get us out of here.”
And suddenly Charon was standing and hoisting me to my feet. I wavered dangerously but Gob steadied me with a hand and led me along after Charon, who was already marching down the path toward the front gate. Bodies lay everywhere, and I tried my best to avoid stepping on them. A few slaves and slavers seemed to be conscious, but they also appeared to be holding on by a thread. There was nothing to be done for them.
The path leading to the front gate was more clear. A lot of the mercenaries who had fought at close quarters with the slavers failed to retreat a safe distance from the nuke. I could see the destroyed launcher lying in ruins next to the dead man who had used it, and I felt no pity. It was beyond idiotic to use such a thing. I was so preoccupied by observing the useless death around me that I did not realize two mercenaries were still standing and were approaching us intently.
Charon held up his shotgun, but I reached forward and touched his back weakly. “Don’t fire unless they threaten us,” I commanded, trying to keep my voice even. I felt so sick, I felt like I just wanted to lie down and sleep.
He didn’t say anything, and I questioned if he’d heard me or not, but he didn’t fire. The mercenaries slowed in their step, but they held their aim towards us. I clenched my fists nervously.
“Get the fuck out of the way,” Charon boomed. His voice carried and echoed twice over.
“You’re coming with us,” one said with a drawl, then shifted the nozzle of his assault rifle towards me, “or we take out the girl.”
I flinched when the shotgun went off. Pieces of bone and flesh splattered everywhere from where his head had been. Before the second mercenary could react, Charon had turned on him, blowing a round into his chest. The man fell with a gurgled cry. The moment he hit the ground, a scarce second had gone by, and Charon had muttered, “Let’s move,” before I could fully calculate what had just occurred. As we walked by the dying man, he growled: “You’re fucking dead, you’re fucking dead!”
It was true. The whole world was against us now, or so it seemed. First I had angered Megaton, now the slavers, and even the Talon company. For being an insignificant and unexceptional traveller in the Wastes, I somehow had a knack for attracting a very dangerous amount of attention. So many had died, good and bad alike.
We travelled most of the night. Hours from sunrise, we settled down by the dry banks of the Potomac near an overturned pre-war houseboat. We didn’t start a fire. It was likely we would be spotted by one of our many enemies who were likely out looking for our blood.
Luckily for us, there were old imperishable goods stored in the crates that littered the ground next to the boat. They were primarily freeze dried fruits and cakes, but they filled us, regardless. I fought off waves of nausea as I ate, trying not to show my weakness to my companions. I managed to keep the food down somehow, or perhaps I had just gotten lucky. We sat in silence for a while after we’d eaten, and surprisingly, it was Charon who broke it.
“Gob, remember the time I was holed up in the pen for failing to execute an order, and you sat next to me the entire time, trying to chat me up?”
Gob looked just as surprised as I was. What’s more, Charon suddenly seemed to remember his past. We were leaning up against the overturned deck like it was a wall, and Charon sat in between us. I looked between him and Gob through the dark (the coming sunrise provided just enough light for me to see them) trying to read the situation.
“Er…yeah, I remember,” he said uneasily, probably trying to decide if it was a trick question or not.
“You said you left Underworld to find ‘broader horizons.’ Why?”
He looked like he contemplated this for a moment. “Grass is greener on the other side, I suppose.”
Charon shook his head and gave a sardonic chuckle. “Yeah.”
It fell silent for a moment, but Gob piped up. “I didn’t think you were listening.”
“Me either.” He looked like he was going to say more, but he paused. Then: “Slavers picked you up outside of D.C., right?”
I was surprised to see them getting along so well, but my curiosity was nagging at me consistently. “How did you remember, Charon?”
He rubbed a hand over his scalp. “I just needed a little push. It was there all along, I just couldn’t…”
“Couldn’t, or didn’t want to?”
He shrugged. “Maybe both. Feels like there’s another person in my head sometimes. And I don’t want to remember him.”
We left it at that. After a while, the sun was peaking over the east from behind our backs, and Charon suggested that we get some sleep. He wanted to keep watch, as always, but Gob refused. “If I see something coming, I’ll shout. You should get some shuteye for a change.”
I expected Charon to be stubborn and argue, but he nodded instead. I was reminded of the itching in my neck, and I reached up to scratch, blocked by the slave collar. I’d nearly forgotten. “Charon, may I borrow your knife?”
I’d never seen him pull it but I’d always seen it on his belt. I didn’t have anything else around to use, and so trying to dismantle it with a blade seemed to be the best idea for the moment. He seemed to get what I was going to do, for he pulled it and shifted closer to me. “Tilt your head.”
I did so, but not without significant hesitation. I could feel his breath on my neck when he leaned closer, then I felt the knife as he started to pry away at the collar.
“Lucky the power went out on these.”
“Yes.” I swallowed.
“Jesus—ah, fucking bugger.” His hand brushed away some of my hair as he started to work the blade at another part of the collar, and I felt strange. Like I was about to shiver. My eyes darted towards Gob, who was standing with his back to us a short distance away, and I was thankful for it. I was being exposed, and this was a moment I wanted to keep private.
It wasn’t…not attraction. I’m not sure, really. I’d never experienced that. Maybe it was. You need to understand: Charon looked like a corpse—he had no skin, his eyes were cloudy and frightening, he smelled rotten—but…so did I. Looking at me might have been no different. My personality was not exactly celebrated back in the Vault. And I’d never thought of it like that before, but…I just…being close to him. If that makes sense. Just being close felt…it made me feel.
After a few long minutes, the collar clicked, and it fell off of my neck. My hands flew up and rubbed the skin where the collar had been; it was raw and sore but I knew the damage wasn’t serious. Shedding the significant weight made me realize how uncomfortable I’d been.
“Thank you,” I whispered, but I didn’t look at him. I think I was embarrassed, but I have no idea why. It wasn’t like he could read my thoughts, but I felt like somehow he had.
“No problem,” he muttered back, almost as quietly. “Hey, Gob, come here, I’ll take the collar off of you.”
It took him only a couple of minutes to work the collar off of Gob, and once it was done, Charon started to prepare himself to rest. I dared a look over at him, but he seemed to be keeping his eyes downcast as he shifted aside and lay back. Gob stood again, then started back towards his spot a few feet away. “Thanks, buddy,” he muttered as he walked away, rubbing at his neck as I had. I could see flakes of tissue fall off, but the sight made me grin. It seemed to make him look more innocent, I suppose.
The sun was steadily climbing upwards in the sky, and I leaned down onto my side, trying to get comfortable. I didn’t fall asleep for a long time, though. I could still feel his hands and his breath on my neck. I just kept feeling.
Gob got me up about six hours later. Let me sleep in a bit much. I hadn’t slept that much since I’d been beaten up fifteen to sixteen years back. The first thing I did was look over the boss. She was still sleeping. “I’ll give you a few hours,” I said, “let her rest up a bit more.”
It must’ve been hours that I was standing there, but it felt like no time had gone by at all. There was nothing out there, not even a mole rat for me to take potshots at. I would’ve been disappointed any other time, but I was pretty preoccupied. I had a few dreams about the boss, none that I’m too keen on delving in to. Now, before you go jumping to fucking conclusions, it wasn’t like that. Well, not all of them. I’ve never had one before, but I think it’s safe to say that I had a nightmare about her. Instead of Jones running from the bomb, it was her, and she had that terrified look on her face for a split second before she disappeared in flames.
I don’t know how long she was awake, but she scared the shit out of me when she spoke. “Charon,” she said with a voice a mother might use on her child, “what did the slavers mean when they said you were the last of the ‘Jersey band’?”
I threw a glance over my shoulder, but I didn’t look at her. She simply surprised me. I shifted my weight on my feet, trying to decide if I wanted to talk about it or not.
“They were the people that brainwashed me.” I felt like I was betraying someone by saying it.
“Had nothing better to do, I guess.”
This was exactly like that night she’d forced my life story out of me. At least, the last-fifteen-years-of-my-life story. I didn’t want to look at her, because I knew she’d be looking at me with those big black eyes like some sort of cute bug, waiting to read me out for all I was worth. “That’s…”
She didn’t finish, but I didn’t prompt her. She sounded so sad. I suppose it was sympathy she was trying to give, but she didn’t need to finish her sentence. I wasn’t the emotional type, so I preferred not to be around that stuff. I was going to tell her about Schafer, and how I started to realize all those unexplainable mannerisms, how he was trying to redeem himself by treating me like a buddy, but I didn’t. We left it at that. A few minutes later, she added: “I’m glad you’re here.”
I felt the word vomit coming up. I was getting softer by the minute. Jesus fucking Christ. “Yeah. Me too.”
“Maybe when this is all over,” she said hesitantly, “we can stay in Underworld, at least for a little while.”
Oh, shit. I’d almost forgot. “Those mercs were hired by some jerk-off in Underworld to take me and Gob back.”
“What?” she retorted sharply. I heard Gob recoil a bit, woken up by the sudden volume in her voice. I shifted my feet again, like I was doing a Gob shuffle.
“I don’t know how much they trust you.”
“I…” Rage was boiling in her voice. She was pissed, just as pissed as I was about it.
“What’s going on?” Gob asked wearily.
“Slight change of plans,” she said, trying to keep herself in control, “that’s all.”
“What about Underworld?”
“It’s nothing, Gob.”
He shut up for a bit. “All right.”
After all the commotion in Paradise Falls, I’d nearly forgotten how angry I was about that. I found myself wondering who it was, wondering what the kid wanted to do about it. It sounded for a second like she’d want revenge or something, but I knew she was smarter than that. But. Fuck, man. This was a shitty set-up.