Human After All
My gun was still smoking as the blood from
the bodies’ heads pooled on
the floor. I couldn’t move. I had killed people. Two people. One
being a man who was supervising my officer training.
Amata was sitting in the corner, her hands over her mouth as she looked upon the dead bodies. She gasped disbelievingly once, then slowly rose from her chair. She was looking down at her father, whose skin was already paling, before she cried out his name and dropped herself to her knees beside him.
I dropped the gun and Amata gripped at his jacket, her eyes squeezed shut. Her teeth were gritted and bared, her fists full of the Overseer’s jumpsuit. She eventually looked up at me, eyes full of hate, when she asked me with a venomous voice: “How could you do this?”
My father had just escaped the Vault, and all was in disarray. Some were out for my arrest. I had to leave the Vault to find my father, for I was no longer welcome. He had brought chaos upon them by opening the door and letting the Wasteland in, and I was the last person to blame.
When I had approached the security office on my way out, I could see Officer Mack bent over her, beating Amata with his baton. The Overseer stood behind him, with his hands folded behind his back and his chin held high. I had never felt…How could a father stand by while his child was being beaten? How could he even order such a thing?
So I killed him. Both of them. Without even thinking. They died before they even had the chance to turn around and face me. Before I had the chance to think of it myself. I didn’t expect Amata’s reaction to be that of contempt; I was led to believe that she had hated her father after all these years, but I…he was the only family she had left, just like me. I had taken her father from her. I was left speechless.
“Go find your father,” she hissed, “and never come back.”
I was alone. My father had abandoned me and I had alienated my last remaining friend. Her face twisted and she leaned her forehead against her father’s body.
I slowly backed from the office, the alarm in the Vault’s hallways seeming dull and far off compared to the insistent ringing in my ears.
It’s interesting to see how a person’s reserve can crumble so easily. Everyone in the Vault had lost their composure because a door that was never supposed to open had. Had I not thought myself above the others? I had become a killer within minutes, and I had lost my dignity shortly after that. I was no different than the rest of them. No…I was worse. I was the monster.
I started toward the Overseer’s office, where the door to the Vault would still be open for me, my head hung and my shoulders slumped. That’s when I knew what I really was. I wasn’t a good person, for “good people” didn’t exist. I became detached from the world before I even set foot into it.
After about an hour, I decided to start moving again. I secured my shotgun, then secured her in my arms. I stooped to leave the cave. It was darker outside, since the sun was long gone, but I could still see well enough by the moonlight. There was no one and nothing to meet us out there, and that was good, because I still wasn’t in a position to defend myself. I started out east again, keeping my eyes open for that lousy fuck Jericho. It wasn’t likely that he was still around, but they could’ve doubled back. Most of all, I kept looking at her, seeing if she’d woken up. She had to.
I was climbing the stairs to the mall from the underground metro tunnels when I heard the animal’s whine. I paused on the steps, taking my knife from my utility belt and gripping it firmly. Most of the time, I did whatever I could to avoid confrontation in the D.C. ruins, for most residents carried guns larger than I was, and they possessed enough strength to grind me into salt. From the sound of the dog, though, it was injured, and it wouldn’t pose any trouble for me. I was still cautious as I approached the top of the escalators, though, for letting my guard down was the most dangerous thing I could do.
The mall was simply piled with litter and rubble, making it look like the war had happened two months before rather than two hundred years before. I could see evidence of a bunker embedded in the earth, most likely for a colony of super mutants. In the distance I could see the remains of the Washington Monument. It reached into the sky like a child’s finger; the world was laid to ruin, and it was still standing, pointing at the heavens, making a plea for help.
In the other direction, much closer by, was the dog. It was lying on its side, and it was whining continuously, its breath coming short and quick, with a slight wheeze to its pants. I should have passed on and made my way to the monument to ask about James from Vault 101, but found myself creeping slowly toward the injured creature. I didn’t put my knife away; I held it tighter, if anything, but I did lower it slightly.
I was crouched low as I crept to the dog, and it felt like it took minutes to approach it, although it was only yards away. Its skin strained across its ribs. There was a deep gash in its underbelly, its insides threatening to spill out with every breath. Blood seeped steadily from it but death wasn’t coming quick enough.
I knelt down beside it. It was a feral dog, and would have attacked me otherwise, but it merely strained its eye toward me from where it lay, watching me with a panicked, desperate look. I looked back at it, curious, resting my elbows on my knees, twisting the knife in my hand. I’d seen several men and women meet similar to worse fates, but this…the dog would have been my attacker had he not been fatally injured, but now we were meeting on even ground. I never had such an opportunity before. I stared into its eye for a long time, and it stared back, its constant whine fading out low before starting high again.
My father. Was he alive? Had he been as lucky as I to avoid doom? The dying dog somehow made me descend into a state of despair. I would never find him, not in this vast, barren world. I hung my head, the dog’s constant whine dragging me further into despair. I looked back up again when the whining stopped. Its eye was frozen on me.
I could have helped the animal pass its few living moments of life, but I didn’t. It wouldn’t have been much of a difference if I had anyway; it’s death was only seconds away. It was only a dog, but it was more than that. Father. I wouldn’t let it happen again.
I stood, looking over the dead animal once more before heading for the monument. Even though I left the corpse behind, I still felt like its eyes were watching me the entire way, haunting me with the dreadful possibility that I would spend my entire life searching. I’ll never stop, Father.
Schafer and I were sitting inside this bar inside this ghoul city. We were pretty surprised to find it; it was obvious ghouls weren’t welcomed in most places, but the thought never crossed our minds that there would be an entire settlement full of them. I think Schafer wanted to hang around there (despite the fact every ghoul seemed to hate his fucking guts) just for my sake. I think maybe he thought I liked it there. I could care less if I was around other people whose faces also looked like shredded shit. Truth was, I just wanted to go where Schafer went. It was mostly because he held that contract, but it was also because he was the only person I knew. And he was good. But he was a dumbass. And the dumbass was ordering another round for the both of us when he was already shit-faced. So the bartender started to get a little friendly with us.
“An unusual pair, indeed,” the guy wheezed, croaking a bit in what I could only assume was a laugh.
Schafer chugged a few gulps of his beer, then wiped his mouth off with the back of his hand. “Whadd’ya mean?”
The guy folded his hands in front of him in some sort of weird peaceful gesture, almost as if he were praying. “I only find it curious for a human and a ghoul to be travelling side by side,” he replied, bowing his head a bit. I already didn’t like this slimy fuck. “What business brings you to Underworld?”
“Tradin’, boozin’, shit like that,” Schafer said, taking another gulp. I think he was doing it because I wasn’t even fazed yet, and he wanted to prove he could keep up, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve puked up his liver if he kept drinking like he was. I looked at him sideways, shaking my head a bit, then sipping a bit of the beer myself. God damn, that shit was gross. Probably fermented it with irradiated river yeast. It was better than nothing, I suppose.
“Drug trafficking, I assume?” the guy asked. Nosey little bastard, he was.
“Nah, just any crap we can find in the Wastes,” Schafer replied. He was running his mouth off, and I didn’t like it. Had too much booze in him.
“Ah, that’s too bad,” the ghoul sighed, but it sounded like a goat dying, “I could always use a reliable supplier.”
We fell silent again, and Schafer downed the rest of his beer. “Maybe you should ease up,” I said, looking at him sideways. I had visions of me watching over him all night while he puked himself silly over a toilet.
Schafer didn’t seem to like this, though, ’cause he slammed his empty bottle down on the counter, and growled, “Just keep your trap shut, will ya?”
“Of course.” That was one of my automatic responses when it came to commands. I usually adopted this sort of formal tone when I said something like that, and the bartender’s eyes flashed, like he’d caught on to something fishy. I really hated this guy, but I couldn’t say anything now.
“My, my,” the ghoul said with this shitty sounding chuckle, “you’ve got quite the leash on your companion, if I might say so, sir.”
“Yeah,” Schafer said, slapping down a few more caps for another beer and shaking his head groggily, “s’cuz of his contract.”
Fucking piece of shit ass wipe! I knew Schafer wouldn’t be sharing this precious piece of information if he was sober, and the fact that he just gave it away to this sleazy bartender was very, very fucking uncomfortable. I leaned on the counter, balling my hands into fists, glaring at the bartender as he eyed Schafer like he was a piece of meat. Unfortunately for me, Schafer was real outgoing, so he started really getting into his conversation with the maggot.
“Yeah!” Schafer exclaimed, reaching into his satchel and pulling out my contract. I froze, and if I still had hair on my arms, I’m sure they’d be standing on end at that moment. Schafer waved it a bit, then slammed it down on the counter. “He obeys anyone who has that contract.”
Ah…fuck, Schafer. I could see the bartender eye the paper hungrily, then look back at me. “Interesting,” he said very slowly, and I glared him down. He just smirked in response.
“Yeah…tragic story, I guess,” he said, lowering his voice and staring at the paper. I turned to him, waiting to hear more. “Brainwashed as a kid—listens to whoever has that piece of paper.” I’d heard that bit before. I was hoping he knew more about me, but whatever. I didn’t want this bartender knowing anything about me. It made me feel on edge.
“Yeah, we’ve been trudging around together for about a month,” Schafer said, throwing his arm around my shoulders sloppily. “He’s a good guy to have around.” I glared at him from the corner of my eye, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was giving this goofy grin to the bartender. I was scowling.
“And might I ask,” the bartender asked, folding his arm over his chest and tucking his other hand under his chin, “how much is his company worth?”
I suppose I didn’t have any orders to be civil, but I don’t know why I reacted like I did. I got up off my stool, wound my fist back, then punched the fucker square in the jaw. He staggered backwards, colliding with his shelf full of booze, knocking some bottles to the ground. Everyone in the bar shut up, some shot out of their seats defensively, including Schafer. His arm was torn from my shoulders when I stood, and he clasped his hand back down on my shoulder, shouting, “What the fuck?!”
I stood there, keeping silent to my orders, obviously. I was breathing pretty heavily, and I probably had a look that could kill on my face. I looked down at Schafer (he was shorter than me, most people were) and he was giving me a pretty angry look himself. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said, sounding instantly sober. “I don’t want to see your face ’til morning.”
My breathing started to even out as I stared back at Schafer. He hadn’t been mad at me before, and I felt a little uneasy. I suppose because it felt like a failure to my master, and the contract was starting to drown me in that fucking evil feeling. So, I did only what I could do to avoid that painful place in my mind: I left. I only gave that bartender a sparse glance but I saw something I wasn’t expecting and it bothered me. He was holding his jaw and smiling. I stalked form the bar, and I felt some sort of sinking feeling. Everyone else in the bar was glaring at me as I left, but I didn’t notice. I knew that grin of that bartender meant shit for me, and I was right.
I left Underworld, and walked outside into the open mall. It was dark out, but the moon was full, so there was enough light to see. There were a few super mutants prowling around in the dark, grunting stupid shit to each other. I caught sight of someone else standing closer to me, and I recognized the bright red hair. It was Underworld’s lookout. We passed her on the way in, but we didn’t exchange words. I didn’t approach her, though. I wasn’t one for chitchat.
I leaned against the wall of the museum, folding my arms over my chest. I’d wait until a few hours after sunrise to go back to Schafer, like he commanded. I closed my eyes, trying to take in a deep breath. This was going to be one long hell of a night.
I opened my eyes and looked down to see the guard leaning against the wall next to me, lighting up a cigarette. I didn’t say anything. I usually didn’t when someone else talked to me.
“Want one?” she asked, holding out the pack of smokes to me. I kept staring ahead. She scoffed. “Not the talkative type, are you?”
I looked the other way.
“Don’t blame you,” she said, taking a drag. I could see the embers lighting up in the night. “Not much to talk about these days.”
I looked over at her again. Not much point in ignoring her all night. She looked up, stuck out her free hand, then said, “Willow.”
Introducing myself was something I’d never done, and only did once after that. I looked her up and down a second before I took her hand and shook it. “Charon.”
“Hah,” she said, returning the shake and pulling away, “like the ferryman in the underworld, right? On Acheron?”
I looked at her funny for a second. I didn’t know that, actually. It was written on the contract. Most people pronounced it “Sharon” and Schafer said it like “Ka-ron.” I was about to ask her what the hell an Acheron was, when I realized that she lived inside a museum, more specifically, a concourse devoted to all things afterlife. She’d probably picked it up somewhere in one of the exhibits. I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Fitting,” she said. I thought she was smiling with the smoke between her flaky lips.
We spent most of the hours in silence, the hours where Ahzrukhal sweet talked Schafer into shit I wasn’t aware of. Hours when Schafer fell asleep, and Ahzrukhal slit his throat while I was away. I don’t know when it happened, but…I wished I hadn’t acted out like that. Maybe Schafer wouldn’t have sent me away. Maybe I’d still be with him now. Then again, if I were with Schafer, I might never have met her. It’s just a fucking shame Schafer died. Sometimes…I don’t know.
We were coming up on the Potomac again when she took in a shuddering breath. She was still asleep, but I thought that maybe this time I’d be able to wake her up, get her to eat and drink something.
I knelt and laid her down, still cradling her by her shoulders. When I gave her a firm shake her head lolled around like a rag doll’s. Her eyes opened wide—oh, thank fucking Christ, I thought—but she didn’t seem to see me. Her eyes were glazed over like a tweeker’s. She went kind of rigid, holding her breath.
“Hey,” I said over and over, getting in her face. That didn’t seem to help her focus on me, even when her eyes got big. Then she let out her breath, and it was long. Slow. Soft. Her eyes half closed and her head tilted to the side.
It didn’t sink in right away. I think I already knew that she was gone but I kept shaking her, calling out “Boss.” I stayed kneeling in the dirt for a long time, but I don’t know how long that was.
I just thought that…She just…went away. There was no goodbye. The last time we…fuck, I was going to kill her. And that was it. That was her last memory of me.
I didn’t feel like this when I found out Schafer’d been killed. Then again, I don’t think Schafer was as important to me as she was, to be honest. No one ever was.
This was worse than losing the contract. That was burning away a sickness. This was watching what little life I had fade away.
I closed her eyes.
The sun was starting to get higher. I picked her up again. I didn’t know where I was going to take her, or why, but I started north. Her head didn’t rest against my chest anymore, but hung over my arm, the neck stretched too far.
I remembered someone in Moriarty’s mentioning that Vault 101 was slightly north, within spitting distance of Springvale. I backtracked and carried her all the way there. My neck, back and shoulders burned, but I wouldn’t put her down to rest. I climbed the hill near Springvale, and I found the shack door to the cave without any problem.
She’d said they’d exiled her, but…that’s where she deserved to go back to.
I laid her down in front of the Vault door, staying next to her for a while. I felt like I should have left something behind, but I didn’t have anything but a few caps in my pocket. I closed her mouth, rested her arms on her chest, and left a cap on her lips. Just like my namesake. I guess…that was the only way I could show her…
I didn’t look at her face before I left. I thought I wanted to remember her how she was. But I wish I had looked.
It was black when I left the cave. There was no wind, no rain, not a cloud in the sky. The light pollution from Megaton was enough to lead me back into Springvale. I headed for that house where we’d hidden for the night when we escaped with Gob, not so much as looking up to see where I was going. When I got there, I climbed back through the broken boards and stood in the entrance for a while. Just over there, by the couch. That’s where she had been curled up in a ball. So I sat there, leaning up against the wall and propping my arms up by my knees.
I didn’t know how else to grieve.
The boss and I were opposites, but I supposed we had a lot in common. Our lives didn’t seem like they could fit together, but all I could imagine when I thought about my future was following her around, helping her find her dad. The contract…fuck. Fuck the contract. It always was about the contract. But me without the contract? I would have followed her. All I’d wanted was to be there when she finally found what she was looking for.
It felt like I’d spent a lot more time with her, like we’d done so much more, but…she was a fucking blink in the time line of my sorry-ass life. But that’s all it takes sometimes. One second to close your eyes and open them again. One person to show you a different picture you ain’t never thought could be real. She was the only good picture I’d ever know.
I wish she didn’t have to die for me to see that.