The world came rushing back like breaking the surface of water for air. Something heavy was clasped around my neck. It was dark, cold, and inhospitable; I was placed next to a barrel in a run-down ruin, and the Geiger counter on my Pip-Boy ticked a foreboding tune.
My memories of what had happened over the previous ten hours was fuzzy at best. The first moments were vibrant.
The tunnel was dark, but I could see Charon looking back at me. It was when I saw the grenade fly that…Despite his harsh mannerisms and suggestive contempt for me, I felt that same feeling of anxiety I’d had with Gob—not being in control, not being able to keep them safe. Safe…were they hit by the blast of that grenade? If they were unharmed, did my last order stand?
A wave rode up from my stomach and I heaved, puking up what little contents of my stomach I had. I spit up the last of it, feeling the burn up my throat. Imagined or not, I started to feel a faint heat coming from the barrel next to me, and I moved as far away from it as the shack would allow.
“Boss?” Charon had said. When I stared at him…I don’t know. I wanted to spill every last regret to him right then, for I was sure we were both about to die.
And that’s when I came up with a haphazard plan to save them.
“Keep Gob safe,” I commanded and I slammed the door closed.
The explosion hit before I could clear the door. Then I was somewhere else, screaming sharply at first, then finding my voice robbed of me. The pressure on my chest was unbelievable, and I thought for a moment that shrapnel had torn up my lungs. But I did not drown in my own blood. I did not wallow in it. I had no broken bones and I was not dying or dead.
Never had I been this discombobulated. When I tried to stand my limbs responded by crumpling. I took to crawling away when two strong hands grasped me by the shoulders and flipped me over.
“No,” I growled, and I threw a jab at the crook of his arm, trying to break his hold on me so that I might take the element of surprise, but I was still as clumsy as a newborn. He staved off my blow easily, then struck me in the jaw. I stopped feeling it after the third blow, and by the fifth I couldn’t control my body anymore, but rather than lose consciousness I lay limp in the dirt while they argued over me.
“She’s not even on the bounty. The contract calls for the ghouls.”
“Maybe we can use her as bait for the other two. Y’know, lure ’em out.”
“Yeah, great fucking plan. Why the hell did you throw that grenade? Especially if they were already in the sewer? Think they’d eat their way through the rock to get back to her? And hey, what if you’d blown them to bits instead? You fucking moron.”
“So it was risky! We got this out of it, didn’t we?”
There was a pause. “Yeah, and she’s not worth a fuckin’ cap. What now, genius?”
“She’s not worth a cap to our contractor, maybe, but she might be worth a sum from the slavers.”
Another pause. “Yeah, I suppose that’s an option. But here’s the kicker. We’d have to go out of our way to Paradise Falls to drop her off. And even then, the dickwads might not even take her. They usually only do business with other contracted slavers, not mercs.”
“So, you wanna camp out here with her until the other ghouls get here, or you wanna try and make some money?”
“Oh, fuck all that’s good and holy, fine! Pick her up, you carry her, since you’re the one who threw the grenade in the first place. I’ll camp out here, wait for the actual goods. You cunt.”
“I’m taking seventy-five if I’m carrying her there by myself.”
“Oh! Certainly, Your Majesty! Why don’t you just take the whole payment and I’ll collect everything on the actual bounty that we fucking came here for!”
“You’re a fucking asshole, you know that? Go fuck your mother.”
I could barely feel motion, like I was floating inches off the ground. I was only aware of feeling in certain parts of my body, on top of the hot throbbing that pulsed on the skin on my back and calves. My middle was pressed into something hard, like a shoulder, and blood was rushing to my head.
“Already been there, fuckwad.”
There was more talking, but it was mostly faint. Through all of it, I only heard: “We always accept business in Paradise Falls.”
So. This was what would become of me.
I found it hard to be terrified, but I knew at a superficial level that I ought to be. Paradise Falls was not where good things happened to people. I was in slave territory. I reached for the collar around my neck. I could scarcely fit a fingernail under the gap between it and my skin.
I was a slave. I was going to die a slave, and my last thought would be of the father I never reunited with. It would be of the mother and son I failed to reunite. It would be of the slave I had cheated, the regret I held. I supposed I didn’t care much about myself then; the only thing I could think about was if Gob and Charon had made it, if they were all right. The blast was fairly forceful, but old steel was still steel, and it could withstand an equally old grenade, could it not? They had to be safe, they had to be on their way to Underworld right now.
My eyes shot wide and I stopped breathing momentarily. I didn’t give Charon the order to take Gob to Underworld. No. What would he do with my charge? Even if Charon still followed my orders, I had no idea if Gob would make it back home. It was open to too much interpretation. My sacrifice could have been in vain.
“She hasn’t got anything on her, man,” I heard someone say from outside the door, and I recoiled, scuttling back.
“What about that Pip-Boy on her arm?”
“We don’t know how the fuck to use it!”
“She’s gotta have something in that Pip-Boy, just fool around with it.”
“Don’t think I have?”
“No, I didn’t think you did. Know why, Jotun? Because you’re a fucking dumbass, that’s why.”
The door opened and a blast of evening light hit me in the face. I knew it would do little to help my situation, but all I could do to retain any honour I might have had left was to open my eyes wide and stare back, as painful as it was.
“You,” one of the silhouettes said, and approached me casually, “you’ve got shit in that Pip-Boy worth somethin’, don’t you?”
Still as stone. He got close, and he bent over to grab me roughly by the collar of my ruined hoodie. “What’s in the gadget?”
I wouldn’t say a thing. I didn’t care what he did to me, I didn’t care if he cut off my arm to try and get data out of my Pip-Boy, but I had Charon’s contract tucked into the gap between it and my arm. I would not lose it, not again.
“Gimmie that,” the man said, his hand darting out of my forearm, pulling my Pip-Boy to his face. He jabbed a few buttons, staring at the screen with pointed eyes. He started mashing buttons, shaking it, swearing at it. Pip-Boy use was minimal in the Wasteland; there was no way he would figure it out. Not that he would find anything of value if he did. As long as he was focused on the Pip-Boy itself, he wouldn’t find my last thread of hope hidden underneath it.
“To hell with it,” he growled after a moment, throwing my arm away, “we’ll just wait ’til Morgan gets back.”
“Why wait for the tech? Why not just beat it out of her?”
“No, Eulogy said we can’t touch her, not that one. If she has bruises on her, it’d lower the cost.”
“So? I don’t care if a bitch is broken and scarred, I just need her to be—” the door slammed shut behind them, momentarily muting the man’s voice. “What if she’s got something worth caps in there, man?”
At least I knew Charon was unobtainable by the slavers, at least for a little while. I slowly slid down the wall onto my side without feeling it at first. The ground was dirty, cold, but I couldn’t sit up. I could feel a dry heave coming on.
And I really wanted Charon to just be there.
We eventually found a detour hall that led into one of the underground metro tunnels. It was by sheer dumb luck. I didn’t think we had a chance of getting into the train station from there. The only thing on those tunnels were packs of feral ghouls, but all of them watched us from a distance, screeching threats. I kept making sure Gob was on my heel, even though I knew the ferals wouldn’t think of attacking us. But my state of mind was still fragile, and I wanted to make damn sure that fool wasn’t going to get himself into any sort of shit I couldn’t stop first, not if it meant being pulled down into that hell again.
I know I said I didn’t care for talking with this guy, but I eventually had to actually talk to the sorry sack about my plan. “I’m not bringing you to Underworld,” I said, breaking hours of silence walking through the tunnels. “I’m going after my contract, and I’m supposed to make sure you’re safe in the meantime, so you’re coming with me.”
“Well, I figured that,” Gob said back to me in a grumble. “Besides, I wouldn’t go back if you sent me. I wanna help you find the smoothskin.”
“Good.” I actually didn’t care. He was as useful as skin lotion to me, but I rather he agreed than me having to convince him otherwise. I didn’t know how long it would take us to get back to the entrance of the sewers, but each second I went without knowing where my contract was felt like an eternity.
Silence came back comfortably this time, but I should have known better than to expect Gob to let it lie. I’d broken the peace, and he was eager to mess it around some more. “Charon, don’t you care the least about that kid?”
Ah, for fuck’s sake. I shouldn’t have explained myself to the bastard, or else we’d be walking in silence still. Silence, I took you for granted. I only realized I did in moments like these. “You know what, Gob, that’s not a conversation I’m ever gonna have with you.”
“Because, you know, she seems self-serving, but I think she’s a good enough person underneath it all.”
I rolled my eyes. I would just let him talk like a fart to the wind. I didn’t want to exert the effort trying to get the message across that I didn’t want to talk to him. I thought I’d already made that clear, but I suppose I couldn’t expect that much from Gob.
“I suppose out of all the smoothskins I ever dealt with, she was the nicest. Every asshole in that town gave me shit all the time, ’cept her, and maybe Nova. She didn’t seem to care much about me, but she never had any judgements either. I hope she’s okay.”
Jesus Christ, I wanted to keep my mouth shut. “Yeah.”
“Really?” Gob said. “You too? That’s a surprise, coming from you. You know, I used to get the same vibe from you, when you were a smoothskin.”
So, I’d like to say I’ve got this hard, unwavering reserve, that I didn’t give a shit about my past or Gob’s involvement in it, but I paused in my step, and Gob came to a halt behind me. He probably thought I was gonna turn on him and give him hell, because he started blabbering. “Hey, you know what, man? Forget I said anything—”
“When was this?” I said, relatively calm for what he’d just said like he was talking about what we did last Tuesday.
Gob shuffled his feet again. I would have punched the fucker in the knees if I could have. “Eh, yeah, sixteen years back. I mean, before I was sold. Last time I saw you, you just started turning.”
I never put any thought to it. Memories of my life consisted of being a ghoul, and I barely even considered that I’d once been human at one point. He caught me off guard. And I was never caught off guard. I searched his face, trying not to look pissed about it. It was mostly because I didn’t want him to do his stupid little nervous-dance. “You knew me when I was human?”
“Sorry, I—” he faltered, then sighed. “Yeah, back then, you were a smoothskin. You were kind of like the kid in a way. Cold-shouldered, indifferent, but it was still better treatment than everyone else gave me, save the fact that I was a slave.”
I stared at him. It wasn’t much, but it was hard to take in. I was a human at one point, I didn’t look like a walking corpse…why couldn’t I have died? On top of being some sort of tool tied to a piece of paper, I was a fucking ghoul; my life was as shitty as it could’ve gotten. “Let’s keep going.” I wanted to ask him more, but I didn’t. I didn’t know how.
I couldn’t bog down my curiosity with my distaste for Gob anymore. Before it’d been annoying jabbering, but now…human. Well, yeah, obviously I had to be one at some point. But. Fuck. Fuck my life.
It took about an hour before we found the top again, and all that time was spent in silence. We didn’t meet one threat out there. It would’ve helped make me feel better, take the edge off a bit, but I suppose I hope too much for my own good. It was early evening, as the sun was close to setting, and it made shit worse. I hadn’t a fucking clue where we were, and being lost at night was asking for a reason to die.
I decided that going through another subway might lead us to the outer reaches of D.C., where we could make it back to the sewer entrance we’d been jumped at. I felt like saying a couple of things to Gob once in a while, but I decided against it. Who knows how much talking he’d want to do if I encouraged him. I suppose I was starting to hate him less, though. Not like him more, that’s not what I said. Just hate him less.
When we rounded a corner into a generator room, we came face to face with a small group of mole rats. Sure, they were just mole rats, but I could’ve been giggling with glee, I was so happy to shoot at something. I got one before they could think of rounding on us, then I blasted the second when they started charging. The last one jumped through the air at me, and I waited until the last second to blast it apart.
A bang went off in my left eardrum. The rat exploded in my face. Cursing up and down, I leaned against the wall. There was blood on me, I was sure I’d gone deaf, and I didn’t get to kill the last mole rat.
“What the fuck?” I yelled, standing tall and towering over Gob. He had the .44 in his hand, and he still held it up, like he was prepared to shoot me next. I thought for a second that maybe he would, but I realized he was just scared that I would do the same, maybe. Sure, I was pissed, but kind of impressed. He took my kill, but he had fucking good aim.
“Next time? Don’t fucking pop one off by my ear.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled, lowering his gun.
I wrung my pinkie in my ear. “Leave the death-dealing to me.”
“Okay.” He looked more helpless than a twelve-year old.
After another hour, we came up to the surface next to the remains of an old major highway by the Potomac. I immediately started south along the river, Gob walking briskly behind me to keep up. I wanted to get back to the entrance to find out what happened, I wanted to find my contract now.
It was night by the time we got there, and I knew we were in it deep, but I couldn’t give up now. If the dark bothered Gob, he didn’t complain. If he did, I would’ve snapped at him to keep his hole shut, anyway. As we got close, I saw that the side of the hill had been blasted apart where the door was embedded, blocking the path. I wondered how far away the boss got before the grenade went off, if she died slowly, or if she made it. I remembered those screams…I could have never imagined her screaming. Screaming meant she was alive, but it was…ah, fuck, it was terrifying. There, I said it.
“Well, do you see anything?” Gob mumbled as we stood there before the blasted-in sewer entrance, looking at the scattered debris of dirt and rock from the grenade explosion.
I sighed heavily, like how I used to sigh to myself when some dick was trying to rile shit up in the Ninth Circle. “No.”
I rubbed my eyes, feeling the little remains of my skin scrape together. What the fuck did I expect? I suppose our little detour was the only way for me to keep myself distracted and sane.
Well, what could have happened? Probably an ambush from mercenaries hired by Moriarty. In any case, it had to be someone who was stalking us for some reason or another, and it had to be someone who knew what they were doing. So, if the boss survived, where would I find her? Where would a couple of mercs take a girl? Maybe the bounty was for her head, or to take her back to Megaton to Moriarty…but I couldn’t risk going back there. Not with Gob. I’d undo everything that kid worked for. But what if the contract was there?
Then I heard something. “Gob, stay put,” I demanded, and he stopped pacing. I listened. I swear I heard a shuffle that was out of place with Gob’s movements, some sort of slip or shifting—
There it was.
I pulled my shotgun and charged at a pile of rubble. As soon as I got close, some guy jumped up, holding a shotgun. I blasted a cap, pellets spraying across his chest and right arm. He didn’t make a noise as he staggered backwards, and I closed the small gap between us, swiping at him with the butt of my gun. He fell with a muffled wheeze and I pounced on top of him, holding my shotgun aside with one hand and choking him with the other. He had dark armour on, with a white claw spray painted on the top corner. He was a Talon merc. Motherfuckers. I heard about ’em before, but I never had the pleasure of choking one.
“Where is she?” I growled, shaking his head for emphasis. He was beating at my hands, but the effect was like butterfly wings fluttering on me. Not to mention I’d just blew pellets into his right side, so he was probably at a disadvantage in strength. He squeaked, unable to say anything coherent. I was going to ask him more forcefully again, when I considered that I was probably choking him too much for him to talk. I loosened my grip a bit, then asked him again: “What’d you do with the girl?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m gonna pop you’re fucking eyeballs out by your throat if you don’t smarten up,” I threatened, squeezing harder than before. His legs flailed underneath me, and his face started to turn purple while his eyes grew wide. I let his throat go again, then waited for him to speak. I didn’t want to have to repeat myself.
“Selling her,” he gasped, still trying to fight me off with his left hand. He was repressing some groans from the pain, but he was being pretty tough considering the shit I was putting him through. “Paradise.”
I had to stop myself from brutalizing the little fuck. Blind anger came over me—no, it had to be fury, berserk, raging madness, out-of-control-beat-the-living-shit-out-of-everything hatred. My contract was potentially in the hands of the slavers once again, but I didn’t think that was the root cause of me slamming his head into the ground. I gritted my teeth hard and tensed my muscles to keep myself from continuing. “When?”
“Partner went hours ago,” he managed, then coughed up blood.
I squeezed his throat again, shaking him as I questioned him. “Who sent the bounty?”
I already knew, or at least, I thought I knew, but I wanted to hear him say it. “Someone in D.C.,” he said through gritted teeth, struggling under me to try and get me to ease up. “In Underworld.”
That was a fuckin’ surprise.
Someone in Underworld sent out a bounty for Charon and Gob, huh? This was priceless. If I was furious before, I was going feral now. I kept on bashing his skull into the dirt, and he went limp and shit himself. Why the fuck would another ghoul do that? Did the guy have some sort of grudge against the boss?
I stopped long enough for him to focus on me. “It wasn’t to kill,” the guy said, his face still screwed up and his teeth still gritted tight. “Bring back alive.”
“And the girl? What did she have to do with it?”
“Nothing,” he nearly shouted, losing his constraint. He must’ve been under a lot of pain at that point. “That’s why we’re selling her.”
“You lousy fuck. Burn in hell.”
So I beat his head into the ground until his head couldn’t take it anymore.
My contract. With her…it…
Even though she probably didn’t have it anymore, I’d still have to look for her to track it down. It was beyond that, though. It really was. I only know this because I had room in my fucked up mind to be thinking about her actual well-being while I feared for my piece-of-paper soul. When Ahzrukhal had my contract, I didn’t think I could have wants to express. My boss treated me…not kindly, but…like a person. She brought me back. I had to help her. I needed to. I wanted to.
I stood when I felt I had myself in check, and I turned around. Gob was standing there with the pistol clutched in his hands, looking at me with this dumbstruck look. “Shit,” he muttered.
“You remember where Paradise Falls is?”
“Yeah, it’s to the north,” he said sheepishly, pointing in the direction. “We’re not…we’re not going after her by ourselves, are we?”
“Yeah, we are.”
“Charon, hold on a second,” Gob said in his weak voice, holding out a hand in a pleading gesture. “I can’t go back there, Charon, they’d lock me up in a second. If someone recognizes you, they might—”
“That’s where my contract is,” I said bluntly, starting off north past him, “and since you’re still in my charge, you’re coming with me.”
“Is that all this is about?” Gob called after me. “Your fucking contract?”
“No,” I said quietly, so that he wouldn’t hear me. I stopped on my tracks and looked at him. He stood on the spot, holding his hand and the magnum out in a way that suggested disappointment. “We’re going now.”
“So, what, we’re just gonna barge in the front door and demand they hand her over?”
“You’ve got a plan, then?”
My face twisted with a bit more rage as I thought about what those fuckers were doing to her and what I wanted to do to them. “Yeah.”