The Altruistic Heuristic

The boards were tough for being a couple centuries old, but after a few forceful blows, they fell apart like ash.

“Come on,” I grunted, letting the boss run in first, then Gob after her. I told her that we should hole ourselves up in some sorta safe house for the remainder of night when it didn’t look like they were coming after us. She was so exhausted she didn’t even give me a full nod. We were slightly north of the Springvale ruins, and a lone house stood boarded up alongside the crumbled road. It would do.

When we got in, I could smell old death and rot. I may not have had a nose, but all ghouls still had a lingering sense of smell. It didn’t bother me much. It smelled a bit like Underworld, actually. Most things did. I wondered how the boss would handle it, but she didn’t seem to care.

All the windows were still boarded up so next to no moonlight was getting in there. The boss turned on a light function on her Pip-Boy and lit up the room. A couple of skeletons were piled in the corner. She pressed her back against the wall next to them and slid down slow. We were all panting, me and Gob like dogs. Since we had almost no sweat glands left, our body cooled down like an animal would, except we didn’t let our tongues hang out our mouths. That’d only add to our already fucked up existence.

She hung head with her eyes closed, as if she was trying to collect herself. When she looked up at me her Pip-Boy cast an underlight over her face, and her eyes had a gleam to them like some sort of nocturnal predator. It would’ve looked fucking creepy if she didn’t have this look of utter relief on her face. We made it out with our skin on our backs. Well, in her case, anyway.

I wanted to kibosh the staring match we had going on, so I said, “Do you want me to keep watch?”

“I would appreciate that.” I slid into the shadows by the door so that I could see any threats coming before they could see me. And hide from her. I didn’t want her looking at me all the time like that.

I drifted off in thought for, oh I dunno…an hour, at least. I was completely absorbed with the obsession of surveillance. But I suppose what I really couldn’t stop thinking about was that she had my contract again. I only knew her for two days, but those two days were far more liberating than the fifteen years I had with Ahzrukhal. After I started to think of Moriarty’s Saloon as my new home in the short few hours I’d been there, it made standing guard in that musty little shack feel like a fucking castle.

I heard footsteps behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder. It wasn’t the boss; the steps were too heavy, and I could see her slumped against the wall, out cold. Gob came edging out of the dark, looking me up and down like I was a hungry animal that’d pounce on him if he got any closer. We looked a lot alike, being ghouls, but we were opposites. You could smell the vulnerability that rolled off of him. Maybe it was years of being a slave that bogged him down, but despite that I could already tell he was gonna annoy the fuck outta me. “Yeah?” I growled, keeping my voice down.

“How much do you remember about fifteen years ago?” he whispered back.

That’s right. I almost forgot that weird way he stared at me in the bar, the uneasiness I felt at not being able to recall anything when he seemed to know so much about me. I think I was giving him the iciest fucking glare I could, because he seemed to fidget when I didn’t respond. “Nothing,” I said, quiet-like, trying to put him at ease so he’d stop doing that stupid little shuffle of his.

“I wasn’t sure if you would,” he said, stepping up next to me and shooting a glance towards the boss, maybe to check his volume, make sure she was actually out. He avoided my eyes when he finally added: “I honestly didn’t think you survived the beating.”

I obviously perked up at this, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted to appear uninterested. Besides, I had no orders on how to treat Gob after we got out of Megaton, despite the fact I knew she’d want me to treat him with “respect” or some bullshit like that. I wanted to know more, but at the same time, I really didn’t. “Maybe you should get some rest,” I suggested, which really translated into “Get the fuck out of my face.”

Gob shuffled. Fuuuck, I was really starting to hate that. “You’re different, you know. I mean, back then, you were pretty closed off and obedient like you are now, but the actual you, this ghoul that hates everything, didn’t exist. You seemed…nice sometimes, back then.”

I still didn’t say anything but I worked my jaw. “Like that,” Gob said, and I had to suppress a snarl. “Back then, you wouldn’t even think of showing your aggravation. You didn’t even seem human, it was like you were an actual robot or something. There was no personality to you, you were just some sort of…tool.”

I am a tool. I’m fully aware of that. What was this guy playing at? “Listen, I’ve got no orders to show restraint to you, so either wise up or I’ll send you on your way.”

I was expecting his feet to shuffle again, but he didn’t move. He looked up at me with his filmy eyes before he shook his head. “If you didn’t want to talk, you could’ve just said so.”

I hated talking with people. “Get some sleep.”

He turned away from me. I really wasn’t starting to like this guy, and I sure as hell didn’t want to talk to him, but dammit, he’d gone kicking around inside my head and I couldn’t quash him. I felt this unfamiliar curiosity start to build. What the hell? I was never curious, I only cared about what my orders were and what I had to be doing next. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in my past, but I was. I wasn’t about to break down and ask Gob about it, though.

I’d give them a few more hours of sleep before we started moving again. The sooner we made it back to Underworld, the sooner we could drop Gob off and put it all behind us. Well, us as in me, I suppose. I wasn’t sure on the boss’s feelings. In fact, I wasn’t sure if she’d keep me around at all. Maybe she’d drop my contract off with someone else and leave me there. I thought I didn’t care. I’d be stable as long as I knew who my master was and what his orders were, but I could remember the brief flicker of betrayal that went through me when I saw Moriarty holding up that contract. Shit, I was actually liking my mistress. It shouldn’t have been a bad thing, but if she did trade me off again like some sort of pre-war baseball card…ah, forget about it.

After the sun had been up for a few hours, I turned from the doorway to face the ruined house. Gob was lying down on the bed in the far corner, looking just as dead as the pile of bones in the corner. Direct sunlight fell from the doorway onto the boss. She was leaning against the old couch next to her, curled up in a ball. Her face was all tensed up, like she was having a nightmare, but she was motionless besides her slow, even breathing. I moved forward to wake her up, but this time, instead of nudging her with my boot, I knelt down and shook her by the shoulder. She woke up in that same creepy way she did the day before, as if she’d been awake for hours and was simply opening her eyes to see me. For someone as young as her, I’d’ve expected temper tantrums and squinty eyes, but I should’ve learned my lesson about her by now: she wasn’t exactly like other people. “Charon.”

“We should probably get a move on,” I suggested, pointing my thumb over my shoulder. She nodded, and got to her feet. “Charon, have you eaten lately? I have some dried mutfruit.”

I suppose I couldn’t deny it much longer; I hadn’t eaten since she took me out of Underworld. I didn’t answer her, though. “Are you hungry?” she rephrased. I couldn’t exactly lie to her.


Her hands dug into her pockets, and she pulled out a couple of weathered looking berries. “This is all I have,” she said, giving me two and keeping two for herself. “When we make it back to Underworld, I’ll buy us a meal.”

“They sell spoiled food.” I threw the fruit to the back of my throat. “You probably won’t like it.”

“I have a strong stomach.” Instead of tossing them, she placed the mutfruit in her mouth like it was a careful arrangement. I watched her as she chewed it, and I had to wonder: just how much radiation was she exposing herself to? Mutfruit was kind of chockablock full of it. She’d come out of a vault, so she probably wasn’t as Wasteland-wise as most other people. People were real careful about what they ate and drank constantly, considering radiation treatment was getting harder and harder to do properly. I was going to mention something about it, but then she started over toward Gob. He was a little slower to wake than she was, but he was on his feet pretty quick, popping that mutfruit like it was chocolate-covered candy. After we pilfered the house for more supplies, we headed out north, while I kept an eye behind us constantly. I didn’t know Moriarty long, but I had the feeling he’d be trailing our asses pretty quick.

The trip would have been silent, considering that was how the boss and I usually got from place to place, but Gob kept piping up between us, trying to strike a conversation. I suppose he and I were on similar ground; maybe he’d been told to keep quiet for fifteen years of his life, too, and he couldn’t wait to get it off of his chest. But the difference between me and him was a contract and a pair of balls. Eh, I shouldn’t be too hard on the guy, he was a good enough ghoul, but…fuck.

“So, how much did Carol pay you to come get me from Moriarty?” He hefted the backpack she had given him for emphasis.

“Nothing,” was her quick reply. She was starting to sound cold again, but maybe it was unintentional.

“Heh, I didn’t figure you for the pro bono type,” Gob muttered. “You seemed pretty self-interested a couple of months back when you wandered in.”

“I am.”

“Well, thanks for getting me out, anyway. I guess I’m going to miss some parts of the place…but it’s better that I’m going home, I suppose.”

She didn’t respond, and I thought that would be the end of it. I was embracing the goddamn peace again, when she threw a question at him. “You must mean leaving Nova.”


“I’m sorry, Gob. That never occurred to me.” The icy edge to her voice had worn off a little, and she looked at him sideways.

“Nah, I’m grateful you got me out of that stinking hell hole, I just…I know she’ll hold up okay with Moriarty, but…I’ll miss her. Wish I coulda said goodbye.”

There was silence again. Don’t do it, boss…“I’ll keep you two connected,” she said.

Ah, goddamn fucking bitch tits, why was she starting to become such a saint? When I met her, she was out for no one but herself, save for the fact she was going out of her way for Carol before she went to look for her dad again. What was she going to do? Be a fucking delivery girl? Play mailman with love letters in hand, dodging bullets in downtown D.C.? Not to mention, what was she going to do with me? Put me in a cap and give me a satchel for all the deliveries? For Christ’s sake, boss, quit trying to be such a goddamn messiah.

“Thanks, smoothskin, but I’ll manage,” he said with the air of a disappointed kid. I would’ve thought the ghoul was crazy, chasing after a smoothskin (even though she was a whore). There should’ve been no fucking way in hell there’d be a chance between a pair like that. After Gob had been kicked out of Moriarty’s Saloon and I took his place, though, I could feel her contempt. She didn’t like it more than I did. Who knew, maybe she’d miss Gob just as much as he missed her.

So, every once in a while, Gob would throw in some oddball comment, trying to get us all talking. I never reacted, and the boss rarely offered a response, but he never gave up. He’d mention things like how nice it was to be outside for more than five minutes, how big the Wasteland was, how he wondered if this settlement was still there and if this caravaner still traded. I was itching for an excuse to shut him up. I suppose to most people’s standards, he was being just as quiet as we were, but he was talking far too much for my liking.

After a couple of hours, it was late afternoon again, and we were walking south along the bank of the Potomac. The boss had the map, not me, so I was trusting her to guide us in the right direction. She muttered something about trying a different route through the sewers, and eventually we came across this out-of-place door that stood out from the riverside, submerged slightly in a puddle. Just then, she dropped something, and bent over to pick it up. “It broke. Dammit. I’ll have to fix this. You and Gob go on ahead through that door, I’ll follow behind you.”

I grumbled and trudged forward, keeping directly behind Gob. I didn’t see what she’d dropped, but it didn’t take her long to fix whatever it was. I could hear her stand and follow after us again as Gob opened the sewer door, and I followed him inside. As we walked down the hall, though, I couldn’t hear her footsteps anymore, and I looked over my shoulder to see her standing in the doorway. She was looking at something to her left, fear etched in her face. “Boss?” I questioned, pausing in my step and turning back toward her.

She turned toward me, looking like an animal caught in the jaws of a deathclaw. I saw something flicker behind her eyes, some sort of recognition, before she yelled “Keep Gob safe!” and slammed the door shut.

Yeah. Shit. I panicked. All the years I could remember, I’d been comatose compared to that moment.

I flew at that door and tried to get it open, when there was a huge tremor and an explosion. Half of the door blew out, the shrapnel scraping against what was left of my face before the bulk of the door slammed into my chest. Next thing I knew I was lying in the sewer, winded, ears ringing and forearms on fire. There was smoky light filtering in from the top of the broken door as I put out the flames, but the light faded out as rubble dropped down in front of the gap. A lot of it spilled into the sewer tunnel, and I sat up to see the rest of it build-up behind the door, blocking the exit.

The last thing I could hear was her screaming before the rocks settled in place.

“Charon, we can’t sit here forever.”

I don’t know exactly if that’s what Gob said. I was too far deep in my own abyss to hear things right. I couldn’t tell you if we were there for minutes or hours. When we were separated from her, when my mistress wasn’t accessible…it was like a house crushed me. My contract was gone. You might not put two shits to this. In fact, you’d think I would’ve been over the fucking moon. But now I felt utterly sick, like when I didn’t obey instructions right except like I’d killed her myself and disobeyed every order I’d ever been given. I started to shake, I started to feel like I was on the verge of imploding, like I was dying an extremely slow, painful death, but death wasn’t going to come. I couldn’t move, it was hard to breathe. My contract was gone. What was me was gone.

I was sitting in a small pool of irradiated water, leaning against the wall with my legs drawn up and my arms hooked around my knees. Radiation in small doses tends to be beneficial to ghouls; I could feel tingling in my burnt forearms but that was the extent of my grasp on reality. Gob’s voice was kind of far off and dull. Maybe I didn’t want to hear him. I think if I could’ve, I would’ve torn the ghoul’s throat out, so it was better that I was caught in my own personal hell.

“Ah, goddammit!” I think he said, before I felt a pretty dull thud where he kicked the wall next to me. Yeah, goddammit. The boss used to be out for herself. Now she was sacrificing herself for our sorry asses, except she left me without a mistress, she left me without my fucking contract. It was like my soul was taken and crushed to bits right in front of me. I was barely aware of Gob sliding down the wall next to me, or the water ripple out as he settled in the puddle.

“Do these tunnels lead out anywhere?” he might’ve asked. I didn’t actually know if the tunnels would go anywhere. At the time I thought maybe we were stuck inside this dead-end sewer tunnel for the rest of our unnatural lives. That option bothered me little, ’cause my contract was gone, anyway, so what the fuck did it matter?

“Charon, this is about your contract, isn’t it?” I lifted my head a bit at the sound of the word “contract.” Anything about that right then would suit me. “Sheesh, I guess it does have a bit of a grip on you.”

Now that I was starting to listen to him, the silence was oppressive, like too much pressure on the eardrums. It was a piece of paper with eleven articles on it and it was a big deal. What I couldn’t puzzle out was why. I couldn’t pull myself out of that hole, no matter what I thought. It kept clawing me down, and oh fuck no I can’t get back up—

“We have to try and get out of here, we have to go see if we can help her.”

I drew my hands up over my head. I would’ve liked to say I was at least a little worried about the boss, but my missing weight was so much more heavier, so much more noticeable, so much more painful, I want out I want out I WANT OUT!

“Hey, pal, if we find her, we might find your contract, right?”

I just barely caught the those other words. It brought me close enough to the surface, though. “What?” I rasped in a low voice, lifting my head from my hands slightly.

He didn’t say anything right away. Maybe he was caught off guard that I actually spoke. “If we look for the smoothskin, we can find your contract. It’s the least you can do, right?”

I could practically feel myself flying out of that hole in my head, and I got the strength back to tear myself out of my fetal position. I could find the contract. I needed to find a slip of paper in order to feel normal, and that was fucking pitiful, but it was a thought that was a lot better than the one involving me waiting to die in a sewer because there was no contract around to make me feel whole. I looked at Gob, and in the dark I could see him cower. It was ridiculous how timid the man was. His suggestion made me feel like a million caps.

“Let’s go.”

I stood up, stretching my arms to make sure they were healed before I headed down the dark hallway. Gob scrambled up behind me, and our feet splashed around the water in the dark. I held out a hand to the wall, and used it as a guide through the pitch black sewer. After we rounded a corner, Gob started speaking again.

“What do you think happened to her? Raiders? Moriarty’s thugs?”

“I don’t know.”

“How the hell are we going to find her?”

“I don’t know, Gob, shut the fuck up.” All I needed to do was look for my contract, and I’d start to feel better. I’d feel like a god once we found the goddamn thing. I needed to know where the contract was. Even if the boss got herself blown up, I needed that contract to be unscathed when I found it too.

“It’s a little weird we don’t know what the smoothskin’s name is, isn’t it?”

I paused, whirled myself around, drew my shotgun, and pointed it in Gob’s face. It was dark in the hall, but I could still see him go stone pale. I didn’t have time to spout off a warning or a threat to the guy, though, before the sickening feeling came back and doubled me over. I stumbled backward from Gob, dropping my gun in the shallow puddle and collapsing against the wall. The pressure was huge, like being under a mile of ocean.

That’s right. The boss gave me one last order. I didn’t know if she still had the contract, or if she was even alive, but that last moment was the one truth I knew, and it was a lot more sane to believe that she was still my current employer, and that her last order to keep good-for-nothing Gob safe was still in effect. Of course I couldn’t draw a gun on the ass. Bad fucking move, Charon, don’t try that again.

“Gob, do me a favour,” I grunted, straightening as I picked up my shotgun. “Try to shut your mouth, yeah?”

“All right, all right,” he mumbled, “sorry.”

“Just to keep you happy,” I started as I made my way down the hall again, the pressure receding slowly from my head, “I’m gonna try to find us a way to the surface again, then we’ll head back to the sewer entrance and try to piece together a trail. Then you can ask her what her name is, just to kill the curiosity.”

He didn’t answer.

But when we walked through the halls, weaving our way back to where we were separated from the boss, I realized Gob had a point. I hadn’t had an employer whose name I didn’t know before. The thought never crossed my mind to ask in the first place. And, yeah, with the pain from losing my contract fading, I could honestly say that I hoped she was still alive out there and that she was still my boss.

I would never tell Gob this. Fuck it, I wouldn’t tell anyone. But I wanted to know too.

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