Lament

Hired Help

“Hey, Ahzrukhal,” Nurse Graves burst into the Ninth Circle. The patrons looked up from their beers and whiskeys, watching the woman with bloodied overalls clamber up to the bar and lean in towards the dirty bastard. “We need help getting an injured civilian to the Chop Shop. Could you get Charon to come with us outside?”

Ah, fucking hell. Yes, I was an instrument for Ahzrukhal’s use, much as I hated to admit it, but man, did it piss me right off when people talked about me while I was there, like I was some sort of guard dog that couldn’t tell my ass from my head. I didn’t have a grudge against anyone in Underworld other than Ahzrukhal, but I wasn’t exactly anyone’s best buddy either. I rarely saw Nurse Graves or Doctor Barrows, but when she came in yelling like a god damned banshee like that to use me, it rattled my cage.

Ahzrukhal made a pondering noise. “I would like to,” he replied coyly, running his thumb and forefinger over his god-awfully broad chin, “but I can’t spare Charon for a moment, you see. He is my only protection. If he were to be gone just when a thug attempted to take from my establishment, why, what would become of me?”

“You fucking slime ball,” Graves muttered, leaning in close, “don’t forget where your source of ultra jet comes from.”

She had said it at a volume that suggested she would have been discreet about it, but everyone in the bar had paused to listen in. The crooked smile faded off of Ahzrukhal’s face, and he dropped his hand from his chin. “Charon, accompany Nurse Graves and assist her until she dismisses you, then return here.”

“Yes, Ahzrukhal.” You lousy son of a bitch.

Graves turned from the bar, looking up at me and waving her hand to get me to follow her. Again, with the animal treatment. Christ. I followed her at a set pace as she jogged from the bar. One of my strides covered two of hers. She ran off down the stairs, bursting through the exhibit doors, and I kept myself within three strides of her at all times. It’s amazing how that small piece of paper works; I didn’t even have to see it to have it rule over my life.

Graves led me around the decrepit reception desk that sat up front, then pushed through the doors to the mall.

I hadn’t been outdoors for fifteen years, not since Ahzrukhal killed my last master and took my contract. I squinted and lifted an arm to try block out the sun. It was overcast but it was fucking bright.

I looked around for Willow. Where I was stuck indoors forever, she was always scouting the mall. She was another ghoul that I barely talked to, but we got along all right, as far as talking to one another every five years went.

As we neared the road, gunshots fired off to the west, near the Washington Monument. Last I’d heard, the Brotherhood of Steel were holed up there.

“Shit! Charon, come on!” Graves yelled over her shoulder, and I picked up the pace to keep up after her. We rounded the corner, and a few yards alongside the wall, Doctor Barrows was slowly dragging a body across the road, while Willow covered him from gunfire. She was crouched, inching along beside him as she fired at the monument’s entrance, where all the armoured smoothskins set up shop.

Fuck, I hated the Brotherhood. Always thought they were doing some sort of saint’s work when they shot us down. Couldn’t even help a civilian when he’s lying wounded out in the open, right beside a super mutant’s nest. Arrogant sacks of shit.

We got closer, and Graves patted Barrows on the shoulder, pointing towards me. “Charon, cover us!” Graves called over the sounds of gunfire, and I pulled my shotgun, kneeling down beside Willow.

“Pleasant surprise,” she grunted, firing off the last of her magazine before reloading. “Didn’t think you’d ever get out of that shit hole of a bar.”

I didn’t think so either, but I didn’t say anything. My shotgun wasn’t a great long-range weapon, but there were a few armoured bastards just close enough. Not fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have dared fire at another man dressed in Power Armour, not while I was with Schafer. But those restrictions disappeared once that contract fell into Ahzrukhal’s hands.

“Fuck!” Willow shouted, gripping her arm. One of the Knights up ahead had a minigun, and was trying to spray us with five millimeter bullets from behind a huge mound of rubble. She moved her hand, blood gushing like mad. She shook it off and kept firing. Tough fucking broad. Graves and Barrows were behind us, and I would have asked why the fuck we weren’t drawing back inside, but it wasn’t within my limits to be that “unpleasant.”

“Let’s make it quick, shall we?” Willow barked, ducking with me as another minigun storm ricocheted off the scrap in our cover.

“We have to slow the bleeding, or she’ll die by the time we get her inside,” said Barrows.

I heard her cry out, but it sounded like she tried to stifle it the moment it left her. I didn’t get a look at the damage when I passed them; Barrows was dragging her by her armpits with his back to me when we got there, but it sounded like she was about to fall to pieces.

“Okay, okay, let’s go!”

We walked backwards, shielding Barrows and Graves. A laser beam flew past my head. I went low and Willow went high. Jesus, was it really so fucking important to them to take us down? Fuck me sideways, if this wasn’t annoying. We rounded the corner, just before the escalators to the metro station, and we relaxed our guard a bit. They weren’t likely to follow us that far into our territory, and if they did, we had some time to recover.

“I’ll keep watch out here, you guys get her inside.” Hopefully Willow wasn’t directing this towards me, ’cuase I wouldn’t have given two shits what she wanted to do. Right now, I could only do what Graves told me to do. I kept backing up, my eyes trained on the corner, waiting for any sort of orders.

“Wait, Graves, put her down,” Barrows said. The girl they had started crying. “We can’t carry her all the way there that fast. Charon, give us a hand!”

I didn’t move. Then again, if I were my own person, I wouldn’t have even agreed to helping them out in the first place. I couldn’t do anything until Graves commanded it.

Finally Graves spoke up. “Charon, take her backpack and carry her to the Chop Shop.”

I took my eyes off the corner, slung my shotgun on my back, and went to collect the target.

Inside, I was scoffing. It was the same blonde smoothskin lying on the ground between the two surgeons, doused in her own blood. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she was writhing, her hands hovering over a few bullet wounds in her stomach. First I swung her fucking ridiculously heavy sack over my shoulder—what was she carrying in there, a dozen rockets?—then I lifted her easily, tossing her up to shift her weight (she screamed right in my fucking ear and if it weren’t for that order I woulda thrown her back on the ground). I followed Barrows and Graves inside. After a couple of steps, her head rolled on my arm, and she coughed up some blood.

“Hurry!” Graves shouted, rushing after Barrows. I quickened my step like she said, but I had no fucking clue as to why she was so important to these two. She was just some smoothskin bitch. Who let herself get shot up by super mutants. You know, those big lumbering green morons that have less brains than a brahmin? A waste of valuable resources, patching this one up, if you asked me.

We got back into the Museum of History (good fucking thing too, I was starting to realize I didn’t miss the outdoors), and we rushed towards the Underworld concourse. A few ghouls gathered as we crossed the marble floor towards the clinic, while blood dripped from the kid’s wounds.

“Whoa, what happened to her?”

Everyone’s eyes were trained on us as we burst into the Chop Shop, and I stopped at the door, waiting for my next instruction.

“Put her down there,” Graves instructed, pointing with a gnarled, skinless finger at one of the empty beds. The sheets were white, but the moment I lowered her onto it, they were bright red. Barrows and Graves came up behind me, his hands full with a scalpel, a pair of tweezers, and some gauze, and hers with stimpaks. “Hold her shoulders, Charon,” she said hurriedly, standing on the opposite side of the bed from Barrows.

I put my hands firmly down on the girl’s shoulders. She muffled another cry, trying to fight against the pressure, but I kept her down. I got a better look at her injuries. She was just riddled with holes, and only parts of her hair and face were still blonde. Her pale face, too, was painted red. She was baring her teeth and whining. Not screaming or crying anymore. It’s like she had something to prove right before she kicked the bucket.

Graves started to tear apart her suit. The girl bucked against my hands. Graves grabbed her hands, holding them down. Barrows quickly grasped the tweezers and carefully plunged into one of her bullet holes.

As soon as those tweezers touched the hunk of metal in one of her wounds, the kid went fucking ballistic. I pressed down harder. Barrows was having a hell of a time trying to get the bullets out. After minutes of squirming, he finally got one out of her. Great, one down, countless more to go.

“Graves, stimpak,” Barrows muttered under his breath as he moved onto the next bullet wound. I thought I’d had enough of this bullshit at the time. I thought I’d rather be getting back to Ahzrukhal’s ugly mug. Then she opened her eyes and looked right up at me. No one had eyes that dark. I felt kind of weirded out, like the bitch was trying to worm her way into my head. I looked at her torn-up body instead.

Graves finally found a way to stake the stimpak into her wound, and the kid went slack and her head fell to the side. Barrows paused to take a pulse. “Passed out,” he announced, and went back to his work, being able to take out the bullets without her squirming to stop him.

“You can go, Charon,” Graves said to me, without looking up, before she stuck another stimpak into the kid’s midriff. I dropped the kid’s backpack on the floor by the gurney and started to walk away. I caught myself looking down at her before I left. She looked—ah, I dunno, pristine might be the best word, which is really fucked up because she was wearing more blood than she was pumping in her veins and it’s not a word overly used in my vocabulary. I managed to throw myself for a shitty loop. What the hell was wrong with me? Why was I so shaken up? As I walked away, I couldn’t stop thinking about her face, her hard, black eyes.


When I woke up, I was gripping onto a ghoul’s wrist. She had wisps of red hair and a look of fear about her dead face. I noticed I was still gripping her, even though I figured out she wasn’t a threat, and I let her go, lowering my hand. I was lying on some sort of bed, in a room that smelled—for lack of a better term—like a house made of feces.

“You’re in Underworld. Again,” the ghoul said. “You’ve been in and out for about a day. How are you feeling?”

I throbbed all over. I lowered my hand to my stomach, touching it gingerly. A hiss came from between my teeth before I could even register the pain. “I think I’ll manage,” I said, groggy.

“You were ambushed by super mutants,” the woman explained, lifting the sheet off of me and checking my dressings. “You were in pretty bad shape when we found you.”

I should have died out there. “How did you find me?”

“Our sentry, Willow, saw you after you were shot,” she explained, putting the sheet back and disappearing from my view. I tried to tilt my head to the side to watch, but it hurt. I settled for listening to her talk instead. “She came to get us when she found out she couldn’t carry you by herself. By the time we got there, the Brotherhood started taking pot shots at us. We got Charon out to help us fend off the attacks and get you inside.”

Charon? The bodyguard under Ahzrukhal’s charge? I was going to question as to how she was able to get him to help, let alone how they got him to help a smoothskin, when it occurred to me that I really had no idea as to why they put so much effort into saving me in the first place. “Why am I here?”

“Well, we may look half-dead, but we’re not soulless,” the ghoul retorted with a scoff. “We weren’t going to leave you lying there to be super mutant meal.”

I suppose I was wrong about the Wasteland. Some still had the heart to lend a hand, and to me, of all people. I hadn’t been the most polite guest to some of the residents, and I wasn’t always keen on helping out others myself. I owed them a debt. “Thank you," was all I could offer for the time being.

“Ah, well, we heard you were helping Carol out. She said you were a good kid.”

That’s right, that’s where I was going. Gob. How could I save Gob if I couldn’t last five minutes on the outside?

“I’m Nurse Graves, by the way,” she said over me, returning with a bottle of water. “Doctor Barrows is the ghoul in charge here.”

I was about to prop myself up on my elbows, but the sudden shock of pain kept me still. Nurse Graves slipped her flaky hand under my neck, and helped tilt me upwards to drink. I swallowed it but spluttered some. She lowered me down again, and I made a face. “Is that water filtered?”

“Unfortunately, no. Sorry, honey, it’s all we’ve got down here.”

That was one of the worst troubles of traversing the Wasteland: radiation. I had read of military treatments being commissioned before the war, which worked like an intravenous to clear out the body’s radiation, but I hadn’t found any. Two hundred years of inactive production was enough to exhaust any supply of materials. I wasn’t keeping track of the radiation levels in my body, but I knew they were getting too high to be safe. I had to be more careful, or else I would end up like every last ghoul in Underworld. Or I would die a painful death.

“You’re going to have to stay down here for at least another day,” Nurse Graves said, carefully poking a stimpak into a vein on my left arm. “It looks like your metabolism works well with stimpaks, but you’re going to have to take it easy if you want out of here faster.”

“All right.” I supposed there wouldn’t be any way around it; the more I struggled, the longer I had to stay in this stinking room. To help the time pass, she offered me some powerful anesthetic—powerful as in ghoul grade, which was far more potent than anything a human needed—and I immediately fell unconscious for over three days. I was lucky she didn’t kill me.

We made conversation whenever I was conscious and coherent. “We washed you, fed you, even kept a bedpan under your ass,” Nurse Graves joked, making me feel small. I knew it was inevitable, but something about being dependent on someone else to take care of me was demeaning. “And don’t worry about your state of health; we didn’t run experiments on you in your sleep.”

“That’s…reassuring.” I did not want to sound too ungrateful. “Thank you. I’m lucky that you helped.”

After a few more days she deemed me fit to leave. I tried sitting up for the first time, clutching the sheet to myself. My suit had been cut up in the operation, and there was nothing left of it but scraps. The good nurse was fishing for a set of new clothes for me from a filing cabinet, and in the meantime I got a good look at the room. There was a body draped across the bed across from me; it was the corpse of a feral ghoul. Where the ghouls in this city were still in their right mind, these ghouls had received too much radiation after they changed, and lost their minds, acting more like dogs than people. I stared at it until the nurse returned with a bundle.

“Well, here you go, on the house,” she said, placing the clothes on my lap. “How about you just make sure you do that favour for Carol to pay us back? It would mean a lot to her, to all of us. Gob was a character, I personally miss him.”

She turned away so I could dress myself in private. A tattered hoodie, some fingerless gloves, and some dirtied khakis is what she had to offer. That, and my large backpack that had carried Carol’s life savings. It had remained miraculously unscathed and no one had taken any of the caps. “I’m not sure if I can do it by myself,” I admitted as I started to put my boots back on.

Nurse Graves knelt to help me with them.

"No, I mean rescue Gob."

She looked up at me and laughed. “Oh, gosh, kid, of course not!”

My expression must have looked more offended than I intended it to be, because she seemed to recoil. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean it like that, I just meant…well…you’re just one person. Not a whole lot of people can make it on their own out there, no matter how tough you are. You should really hire some help.”

Thus, I found myself wandering back into the Ninth Circle. I thought if there was anywhere in Underworld I might find someone willing to accompany all the way to Megaton, he or she would be there. Of course, I wasn’t about to spend Carol’s money on any hired help; I had plenty of caps of my own, and I was only hoping I had enough for the going rate.

From the looks on their half-rotten faces when I entered, I could tell I was the subject of gossip between Underworld’s citizens over the last week or so. Everyone but Ahzrukhal had drawn their attention my way. He stood behind the counter, his hands pressed together and his head bowed. It looked like he was in some sort of prayer, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I walked up to the bar, and leaned against the counter, shoulders squared. “I need information.”

Ahzrukhal’s eyes opened very slowly, and he tipped his head up towards me even slower. I waited. His hands lowered, and he seemed to eye me up and down before he replied. “You’ve recovered.”

“Yes.”

He didn’t seem pleased by this. Until, suddenly, he cracked a smile, standing straighter and motioning to me in a friendly gesture. “Of course, my dear,” he started, “how might I help you?”

He hated me. “I was wondering if there were any mercenaries for hire here in Underworld, someone who might consider accompanying me to Megaton.”

I couldn’t make it on my own in the Wastes. I had been lucky for the first month. Not thirty seconds into my new task and I had almost died. I needed someone with me who knew what she or he was doing out in the world. Besides, a bodyguard might have a certain “negotiating” effect on any bargaining I might have to do with Moriarty when I got there. I could see something flash behind Ahzrukhal’s eyes.

“Well, you could always request services from Quinn, although he might be out trading with the caravans somewhere in the Wastes at present. Willow might also be of service, although she has been with us for years, and there’s little chance she would be leaving us now.”

I could feel eyes on my back. It had nearly escaped me that Charon had helped save me a few days before, but I knew that it was strictly under orders. How the Doctor and Nurse had managed to negotiate those orders, I wasn’t sure. I turned my head over my shoulder slowly and looked over at the bouncer. Of course, his eyes were boring into me. His face was mean, like he was trying to put me off, but I held the glance for a little while.

I looked back around to Ahzrukhal when I had made my decision. “What of Charon?”

Ahzrukhal thought this funny.

“Oh, my dear, Charon is an important commodity in my bar. He is practically invaluable; I wouldn’t ever be willing to part with him.” Unless it was for the right price, his smile seemed to say.

I felt odd, talking about a man not ten feet away so casually as if he wasn’t really there at all. Ahzrukhal folded his arms and looked down at me with a crooked grin. “What would be your offer?” he said with a slick voice. He knew he held the upper hand and was boasting it.

I turned my head slightly towards the corner again, but I did not look at Charon fully. “One thousand.” I wasn’t a barterer, but even I knew one started low and worked towards what they were actually willing to pay.

A true merchant that he was, Ahzrukhal knew this rule too. “Pah!” he wheezed. “You can’t be serious, child. Come back when you have a real offer.”

I went for the only angle I could see. “But he hasn’t been of much use to you, being that his only purpose is to intimidate young women into paying for wine and carrying them to the clinic when they’re in trouble.”

“He ensures that I receive the caps that are due.”

“If you don’t mind me saying so, sir,” I said with a low voice, leaning in, “but I think he would have more use to you away from the bar; perhaps he’s scaring off more customers than attracting them.”

He smiled patronizingly. “You cannot fully comprehend this, child, for all of your skin is still intact, but this is a sanctuary for ghouls. I attract them from all over. Charon ensures that each of them coming here remembers to behave himself.”

I was going out on a limb with this, but I had narrowed Ahzrukhal down to a man who valued wealth only nearly as much as he valued power. I leaned forward and whispered, “And take away your authority? Does Ahzrukhal run this bar, or his menacing bouncer?”

This seemed to have the desired effect, based on the flicker on his face.

He began twisting a dial on a safe underneath the counter. It clicked open, and he swung the heavy door sideways, reaching in with a ruined hand and pulling out a yellowed piece of paper. It had ten items on it and a drawn symbol on the bottom. It was so short. It felt wrong to look at it. “Fifteen hundred caps, and this contract is yours.”

Push, I thought to myself. “Twelve-fifty.”

“Fourteen.”

“Thirteen.”

“Done.”

My personal caps were in a marble bag tied to the rope belt holding up my khakis. I untied the knot with care and began to take out bundles of two-hundred. They stood in neat little stacks on his bar top. “You may count them, if you wish.”

“No need,” he said cordially, “I believe we have a certain level of trust between us.” That hung in the air awkwardly. “Very well, here is the contract. Charon is now in your possession.”

I took the thin sheet of paper in my hands, withdrawing it from his dead-like fingers. The moment I held the paper, I heard heavy boots cross the bar. Uneasiness rose in my stomach when I turned my head slowly to see Charon approaching. He wasn’t looking at me—his eyes pinned on Ahzrukhal. I could see his chest rising and falling. I stayed very still.

Ahzrukhal broke the silence. “Yes, Charon?”

“I see I’m no longer in your service, Ahzrukhal.” I suppose those were the first words I had ever heard him speak, besides “Pay,” and I felt them in my gut. His voice sounded much like most ghouls’, deep and raspy, but there was something darker underneath those words.

“Yes, Charon, your contract now belongs to our friend here,” he said, chuckling with a voice that sounded like he had smoked for hundreds of years. “Have you come to say goodbye?”

“Yes.”

Charon whipped his shotgun from his back and fired into Ahzrukhal’s face at point blank. I flinched as blood splattered across me. A cacophony of fear erupted as Ahzrukhal was splattered across his own wall. The shotgun had gone off right next to my ear and I was worried my eardrum had burst. Even before Ahzrukhal’s body slumped to the floor, Charon pelted him again, perhaps for effect. I hope it wasn’t a show for others, for most of the patrons had fled the bar, and he had already given me certain hearing damage.

I’d squeezed my eyes shut and opened them slowly again, almost expecting him to fire a third time. There was blood everywhere—across the shelf, the cash register, the counter, on Charon, on me—I looked down beyond the counter where a dead hand poked up from under the bar, then I apprehensively looked towards my newly hired companion.

“All right,” he said without looking at me, “let’s go.”

I stared up at him with wide eyes, then wiped away a speck of blood under my cheek, as if that was what would make the difference. “Are you certain you’re done?”

“Yes.”

I had to get through the absurdity of the situation before I could ask: “Is this how you treat all your former employers?”

“Ahzrukhal was an evil bastard,” Charon explained with an odd air of politeness, “and your purchasing of my contract allowed me to rid this world of that greasy rat. And now, for good or for ill, I serve you.”

At the time, I wasn’t so sure if that was good news. But I couldn’t ever help but wonder; did he think on me and remember me in such a fond light as I did of him? Back then, I didn’t say anything, I simply reclaimed my bags of caps, walked from the bar, and I heard him follow in toe.




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