The River Below
about ten minutes, Gob decided he couldn’t get back to sleep,
so the boss and him scoured through the rest of the boxes, collecting
any sort of food they could find, then we headed out. We started
off south on the western bank of the Potomac. She had suggested that
we didn’t walk along the D.C. ruins like last time, and we agreed.
She didn’t know it there would be a place to cross on the southern
end of the river, but she decided the long way to Underworld was the
better way. It would probably give her enough time to cool off too,
let her decide what exactly she wanted to do about the bounty.
We had just passed the old Super-Duper Mart when early evening set in. I let the boss and Gob walk a few paces ahead, and I could hear them chattering between each other every now and then. Based on my previous experience with her, where she didn’t talk at all, this made her look like a chatter box. I didn’t know what they talked about. Days spent in holding together gives you a lot of time to get to know one another, I guess. I didn’t like it. I think at one point I heard him call her by a name, but he was being too quiet for me to hear it properly. I think it started with an ’S’.
“No,” she said, apparently answering a question he’d asked. She didn’t speak up, but I could hear the firmness in her voice. “Someone from Underworld sent a contract out for you two. I’m not going there.”
“What?” Gob said, his voice louder. “Who the hell would do that?”
She seemed to contemplate this. “Anyone and everyone, I suppose.”
“No, I mean, there’s got to be some sort of mix up,” Gob reasoned, talking with his hands. “It’s bullshit! Why wouldn’t they just let you get the job done? You weren’t even gone two days before they sent the mercs on you!”
“Perhaps it’s prejudice. Or my untrustworthy aura.” I cracked a grin.
“Ah, they’re always so god damned uptight about every smoothskin that walk by—”
The boss stopped, throwing out her hand to stop Gob. I stopped too, straining my ears and looking around warily for what she’d heard. Damn, I was always used to being the perceptive one—nothing got past her. I was going to ask her what she’d heard, but I decided keeping quiet was the smart move. If it was something that important, I’d find out soon enough.
“Something’s stalking us,” she whispered. She was still looking ahead, but Gob turned his eyes this way and that, trying to see what she did. I let my eyes fall to the ground, and I concentrated on my hearing. Then I heard it; heavy paws padded against the ground, and a heavy, wet breathing went along with it in an ugly rhythm.
“Yao guai,” I whispered, shifting my grip on my shotgun, “from the northwest.”
“Holy fuck,” Gob muttered. I saw his legs tense up, like he really wanted to run, but knew he needed to stay put. If I still thought lowly of him, I would’ve claimed he was trying to stop himself from shitting his pants.
Now, if you’ve never seen a yao guai, that explains why you’re still alive. Picture a crossbred pre-war wolf and grizzly bear that’s possessed by a demon. Besides deathclaws, they’re the deadliest bastards out in the Wastes, and if you’re being hunted by one, well, might as well do yourself in right there.
“Charon, pass me your knife,” the boss said calmly, holding her palm out behind her. I heard the yao guai snarl real loud before I pulled the knife from my belt. I hoped she wouldn’t have to use it, but I wasn’t about to let her go unarmed either.
I lunged forward a couple of steps, shoved the knife in her hand, then turned on my heel and emptied my rounds. It was charging us down faster than I’ve ever seen anything move. I saw the boss and Gob rush off to the side, but the yao guai didn’t seem to care about either of them. It was closing in fast, and I was walking backwards as fast as I could without fucking up my reload. Just as I pushed the last shell in it took a leap, both claws outstretched, and I threw myself down on my ass and laid back. The ground shook when it crashed. I rolled up and fired the last three shots into it. At this point, any normal living thing would have fallen over dead, but it was still alive. It twisted around and it started towards me again. I started to reload, but I knew I’d be dead before I got the first shell in.
The boss was flying at the yao guai and leapt onto its back. With one quick stab, she planted my combat knife in between its shoulder blades, gripping the handle for all she was worth. It reared up, trying to stand on its hind legs, but it fell forward like a crumbling building. It still had some fight in it, shaking side to side like it was seizing. I’d finally reloaded but held fire, waiting. She wasn’t letting go.
Whatever it was rising up was like pinpricks, sharp and noisy and angry. “Boss!” I sounded desperate.
Then she let go or it managed to fling her off.
I blew its fucking brains out. And I kept pulling the trigger after the ammo had gone. Its legs were twitching, its head turning. But it was dead. Dead dead dead.
Ho. Fuck. That thing was a tank.
Right then, though, that wasn’t what was going through my mind. I lowered my shotgun and turned towards the boss, panting heavily and squinting at her in confusion.
“What the fuck were you doing?”
“Buying you time.” She was just as mad as I was. She got to her feet but didn’t stand all the way up. “You were about to be killed.”
“Yeah. And so were you.”
She didn’t seem to understand what I was pissed about. She glared me down. “You were vulnerable. I saw an opening and took it. That’s how partnerships work.”
“This?” I gestured between us rather gruffly. “This is not a partnership. This is indentured servitude, from me to you. If you’re gonna throw some fucking punches, you could at least try not to be a dumbass when fighting!”
I’d overstepped my limits; I’d seen it in her eyes the moment I said that. “Don’t argue with me again, Charon,” she said icily.
I didn’t think she’d pull the mistress card purposefully. Anything warm and fluffy I’d been feeling earlier burned up. I thought she was better than that. The cheating. Fucking. Bitch. “I apologize,” my contract responded.
“Gob?” she called out relatively gently. “Let’s keep moving.”
Gob hadn’t cowered behind any rocks, by any means, but he was crouched down to the side, looking out for more yao guais that might have been looking for revenge. It wasn’t weakness. If I were unarmed like him, no combat training under my belt, faced with a monster ten times my size, I’d be getting the fuck out of the way too. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked, pointing towards her. I looked back at her, noticing her arm wrapped protectively around her ribs.
“I think I fractured something,” she admitted, “but there’s nothing we can do about that now. We can’t stay here.”
“Right…if you’re sure.” He fell into step next to her, mumbling things, probably trying to pull more out of her. I didn’t follow right away; I glared at them from behind for a second. I was…fuck. I knew she was pissed at me, probably for yelling at her, making her feel small, but I was tired of Gob filling the spot next to her, muttering all sorts of nonsense. Of course, if he wasn’t here, and it was just the two of us, we probably wouldn’t be talking anyway. Still, I…fuck. I’m just gonna stop there.
I took my time scowling at their backs before I followed. On the way by I bodily yanked my combat knife from the dead yao guai’s back.
I was glad to have Gob there at that point in time, for I was unreasonably furious with Charon, and I did not want to be traveling alone with him. I knew he was right, at least partially. But Charon had been reloading. He wasn’t ready. He was going to die and I was going to just watch it happen. So of course I risked myself. I’d told myself no more.
But when he chastised me over it? To belittle me like a child when I had saved his life…but he didn’t care about that. The only thing he seemed capable of caring about was his contract, that someone was still holding it and that he was still employed.
It was wrong to hate him for that, but I did.
It was dark again, and it became harder to follow the river bank, but a sliver of moonlight was cast upon the Wasteland, and it was much easier to see our way across the desert than it had been the night prior. My ribs began to ache immensely, and I was about to request a break when we caught sight of something large and looming in the distance with a bridge at its feet. I paused, halting the others.
“What is it?” Gob asked.
The faint snap-like sound of a laser gun being fired carried in the distance. It was coming from the open courtyard in the middle of a pentagon-shaped building ahead of us, and it was unmistakable. I had heard of the place through passing, but I’d never thought I’d come across it.
“It’s the Citadel,” I responded.
“Shit,” Gob muttered, “you mean the Brotherhood of Steel?”
“Yes.” I could hear unexplained urgency in his voice.
The Brotherhood of Steel despised ghouls. I’d not considered that. We needed to cross the river at that bridge, but an entire horde of Knights and Paladins sat waiting for us to crawl by, waiting to open fire on Gob and Charon. No matter what, our advance would be obstructed.
“If we stay low,” I said quietly, “there’s a chance we can sneak past without being noticed.”
Since I knew I’d made it clear that I was angry at him and did not want any arguments, I was surprised to hear Charon speak. “Guards will be patrolling the entire area. We would be engaged in combat.”
The way he spoke was mechanic. It was how he was before we worked together. Was that out of spite? I imagined it to be but should have known it was my fault. I gritted my teeth to avoid saying anything uncalled for but I didn’t acknowledge him with a glance either. “How do you suggest we make our way towards Underworld?” I waited for a reply from either of my companions, but I was hoping for Gob’s.
He did answer, but a sarcastic remark wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear. “Maybe we can find a boat and have Charon paddle us across.”
“I am not a boat boy,” Charon said angrily, in case we decided to be serious about it.
I dug my dirty nails into my palms. “Let’s get a move on, then,” I snapped, storming forward. If my anger was irrational before, it was encompassing now. I know I said that if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing, but I wish I had listened to Charon. Then maybe things would have been better for us, at least for a little while.
They trailed behind me, and we started to hug the bank. When we got close enough to be visible, I ducked low, and I only assumed the others followed suit. I caught sight of a paladin with a mini-gun attached to his right side, and I hit the dirt. I couldn’t hear any footsteps behind me anymore, so I assumed they paused too.
The paladin had turned in my direction, and I threw my hood over my head, trying to eliminate myself as a target; my bright blonde hair was visible even in this minimal light. I strained my eyes to watch him, but he didn’t seem to see me or the others. He turned back away again, slowly, as if he was bored.
We were a safe enough distance away to sneak behind the boulders that stood between the bridge and the Citadel, but it was best to keep low. Even though it was dark, and hard to identify a smoothskin from a ghoul, I had no doubt the Brotherhood would not hold fire. When had I left Underworld, a pair of super mutants chased me towards the Washington Monument, and a knight saw us coming. With bullets flying at my back, I thought the Brotherhood would offer protection, but the knight fired at the super mutant bunker with me still in line of fire. I supposed it was the only way to kill the super mutants, but…I thought I would die. Nurse Graves had told me the super mutants alone attacked me, but I didn’t find the need to correct her. I felt where the bullets tore me sometimes, and this uneasy feeling of death would come over me.
Yes, if the Brotherhood saw movement in the night, they would shoot to kill.
I felt like Gob or Charon wanted to call out after me, but no one dared make a sound as we crawled along the ground cautiously. I stayed low, taking my time to get to the bridge. It was close, and it seemed we’d get by without being seen, but I knew better than to take my chances. After a few minutes, I had crawled halfway along the bridge, and I decided it was necessary to look back. Both of them were following behind me, low as I was. We were almost there.
“Over there!” a knight yelled, and I could hear the faint sound of a mini-gun start to turn. I gasped, and scrambled to my feet.
“Run!” I screamed. I started off down the bridge as fast as I could, ignoring the burning in my ribs. That familiar fluttering feeling filled me again. I would die. At any second, I’d be ripped apart by five millimeter bullets again, and this time there was no nurse or doctor to repair the damage. I could hear Gob and Charon running behind me, and I felt a slight comfort at knowing they were there with me in my final moments, until I heard one of them call out.
I couldn’t afford to stop running but I did. The bullets stopped, probably for the knight to reload the gun. I peered through the dark, and I saw Gob lying across the bridge, Charon running up behind him.
I ran back. “Charon, help him!” I wasn’t so sure if he would pause to save the other ghoul or not unless I ordered it. Charon came to a stop beside Gob, knelt down, and picked him up roughly. Gob called out in agony, and struggled to plant his feet on the ground. His front was soaked with blood. He was alive, but that wasn’t saying much. Charon had slung Gob’s arm over his shoulder and started to pull him along at a quick pace when the bullets started to fire again. I moved forward, running slightly ahead of them, trying to space us out and make us a harder target to hit. The knight was far away, but we were still within range, and Gob and Charon were slower and easier to kill when they were slung over each other. We reached the end of the bridge and started towards the collapsed freeway that offered a path into the ruins of D.C. The shots ceased after that, but my shock still remained. Gob was injured, oh, God, he was completely covered in blood—
“We need to bring him to a doctor,” I asserted, pausing to let Charon catch up, “or find medical supplies, at the very least.”
“No shit,” he barked back through pants, pulling Gob along at a brisk pace. Old Charon was back. Didn’t I need to order him to be like that? The injured man kept growling and groaning, trying to suppress his show of agony. “We’ll stop when we find a building that isn’t boarded up. We can’t make it to Underworld like this.”
I breathed deeply, and a hand flew to my ribs. The sting didn’t seem that strong after seeing Gob’s condition, but the fear of seeing him like that was more prevalent. I kept in pace with Charon’s long strides, running across the long bridge that was littered with old vehicles. We would make it, we could make it…
I’d found a discarded jacket on the road and tied it around Gob’s middle to slow the bleeding. That gave us time to run through the eerily empty streets of downtown D.C. Gob’s growls and grunts were becoming fewer, but it wasn’t because the pain was softening. His blood was drenched all over him now, and it covered most of Charon too. At one point, Charon paused to shift Gob from his side onto his back when Gob stopped moving his legs. Gob yelled, but that was a good thing—it meant he was still awake, he was still alive. I wished I still had stimpaks on me, I wished I had anything that would help him. Oh, God, please…
We climbed the short hill that led from the tall ruins, and I paused at the top, wrapping an arm around my middle again, waiting for Charon to catch up. He was panting a lot now, and I could see blood drip from the tips of Gob’s fingers from where they lay draped over Charon’s shoulders.
I looked out from the top of the hill, and I could see a large building looming a short distance away. “What is it?” I asked as Charon came up behind me.
I continued alongside him when he strode past, and he glanced into the distance. “Jefferson Memorial.”
“Should we stop there?” I watched as Gob’s head draped over Charon’s shoulder and bob up and down with his quick steps.
I kept mumbling to Gob from beside Charon, impulsively checking to make sure he was responsive. We clambered around the broken road to the long stretch that led to the memorial, and I soon found myself shaking Gob’s shoulder, talking about nonsense things, like my conversation with Carol, how I met Charon, and so on. I could see him smile weakly through the dark at me, and I smiled back. My voice was shaking.
When we approached the memorial, I ran ahead, looking for an entrance in the dark. I had taken Charon’s knife again, just to have something to defend myself with. He had muttered something about super mutants likely being there, but there was nothing. A large ramp that led up a row of large pipes that went on and on. There had been some huge operation here. Along it I eventually found the door.
“Over here!” I called. When he got closer, I kicked it in. The air was heavy, the scent of mold overpowering. I coughed and scarcely breathed, but pushed on anyway. I held the knife tightly in my hand, sweat dripping from the handle. It wasn’t because I was afraid of being attacked in the dark. Lurking creatures be damned. It never was about me.
We came to a T-intersection in the hall, and I rushed through the gift shop to our right. There were a few fortifications lining the room, leaving evidence that battles had been fought here. A single light could be seen from a storage closet to my left, and I ran inside, looking for any medical supplies. I tore things off of the shelves, throwing scrap metal and junked parts to the ground, looking for anything useful. There was nothing. “Dammit!” I screamed, kicking a toolbox I had thrown to the ground.
“Boss!” Charon called, and I looked out into the dark gift shop before I ran after his voice. I found him standing by another light in the short distance, looking to me from a door. “Open this for me, will you?”
At the time I didn’t even pause to think about the fact that he had just asked something of me. I dashed forward, and I opened the door, letting him in. “There might be more doors to open down here,” he said as he descended the stairs into the basement. Gob moaned into Charon’s shoulder, and I touched his back, maybe just to let him know I was there. To make him hold on.
We came to the bottom of the steps, and we found ourselves in a generator room. The middle was fenced off. A few individually powered lights scattered the room, and Charon approached the fence, peering down to the floor below. “There’s water down there,” Charon said, then he turned his body to look at me. “I’ll put him in the water—the rads might help.”
Radiation, in small doses, was beneficial to people who had already become ghouls from overexposure. It often helped them heal, at just the right dosage. “Do it,” I said.
“You look for meds, then meet me down there.”
I started running around the room, tearing things around like I had in the storage closet. Scientific charts and test tubes were scattered all over the place, but this didn’t catch my attention right away. Gob. Gob Gob Gob. Please don’t die.
I found nothing.
I was starting to cry and wiped at my face roughly. Crying was what the weak did, those who did nothing to help the situation. I ran down the next set of steps where Charon had disappeared.
At the bottom of the next set of stairs was an open room filled with bunk beds. I opened all the footlockers, checked all the tables and cabinets, but there was still no medicine in sight. I was cursing lividly now, but it only fueled me on faster. I ran down the short hall from the room, and I peered through the closest doorway there. I came into an operating room; the monitors were still functioning. A small tray stood beside the bed in the middle of the room with clean, neatly sorted medical tools arranged on top. I saw a stimpak gleaming in the faint light form the monitors, and I rushed forward, plucking it hastily from the tray before I ran down the rest of the hall, toward the cisterns that Charon had taken Gob to.
It was dark but light from the room above washed down over us, and I could see Charon kneeling down by one of the pools. He had submerged Gob up to the neck, and he held onto him by his armpits, making sure he didn’t sink down and drown. I knelt down beside Charon, and I showed him the stimpak. “Use it,” he said, and I pulled the plunger back, tapped the syringe, then jabbed the needle into Gob’s neck. He mumbled a little, but he barely reacted to the pinch from the needle. Injecting him made me feel immediately better. I tossed the syringe aside, and when I did I noticed that the majority of the water had already turned red with Gob’s blood.
I must have said something aloud out of surprise, because Gob chuckled weakly, and said: “That’s no way for a lady to talk.”
“Gob?” I said, reaching down to touch his shoulder. My hand covered Charon’s, but I didn’t care. “How are you feeling?”
“A little light headed,” he admitted, rolling his head to the side towards me, “but other than that, I’m dandy.”
I laughed and found myself crying again. I did not allow myself to cry in front of others. I never felt the overwhelming need to. But he was alive, on the mend. This was crying from relief, unbelievably wonderful relief. I gave his shoulder and Charon’s hand a light squeeze. “That must mean you’re taking to the drugs.”
“Nah,” he said with a half-hearted snort, “haven’t you heard? Ghouls need the hard shit, you humans are the lightweights. I could keep taking this stuff all day and…nnh.”
I leaned closer, my muscles tensing up. Gob’s head dipped forward a bit, then he lifted it slightly. “Hey, you think when I get patched up, you could hire someone to deliver a letter to Megaton for me?”
I nodded, though he possibly couldn’t see the gesture. “Of course,” I said, sounding too cheerful. “For Nova, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, and I could see him smile. “She’d lose her shit if she could see the things I’ve been through in the past few days.”
I laughed again, but it was more weak, more worried than the first. “I bet,” I mumbled, squeezing him with my hand again. Gob tilted his head back to lean on the side of the cistern. His eyes were open and a gentle smile was on his face. “I think I’m feeling better already.” He moved his arms under the red murky water to his stomach. “It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.”
I felt a large load of relief wash over me. “Good!” A few tears escaped down my cheeks. Oh, thank God, I thought. I made eye contact with him, and he smiled at me gently, closing his eyes. “Mmm, I’d like to be sleeping in one of Carol’s beds right now, that’s for sure.”
“They are quite comfortable.” I felt the need to keep him talking. The elation was too much to keep contained, so chatting came easy. We had made it, Gob was safe now. “I’ll bet they’ll be glad to have you back,” I added in conversation, thinking on the contract that had been sent to the Talon company. My anger on their betrayal of me was completely gone; I didn’t care if they wanted to take Gob and Charon from me before I could deliver them, for my friend was all right. They could take him back now.
“You know…” Gob said, trailing off. I was still smiling and the tears from before were still sliding down my cheeks as I waited for him to finish his thought.
A few moments had passed, and I prompted him. “Gob?” I said, shaking my hand over Charon’s to try and catch his attention. His eyes were closed, and his faint smile was still on his lips. It looked like he had fallen asleep.
“Gob?” Charon said. He shook him.
“Let him rest,” I suggested, looking over to Charon through the dark. But I could see the expression on his face as he peered down at his fellow ghoul, and he shook his head slightly as he tried to stir the injured man again.
The smile on my face faded. Gob’s head bobbed lightly with the ripples, and his body floated with an eerie stillness in the red-fogged waters.
Neither of us moved. Charon still held Gob’s body in the water by his shoulders, and I still held my hand over Charon’s. I shifted my eyes to a nonspecific point in the pool after a while, when I found I couldn’t look at Gob’s serene-like face anymore.
I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually Charon let go of Gob’s shoulders, and I watched from the corner of my eye as his body sank from view. I moved my hand away once Gob’s body was gone, but both of us stayed kneeling by the pool. I thought that Charon felt indifference to everything, but he stayed crouched with me for a long time, neither of us saying a word.
I didn’t know what to do after that.