I'm met with another blast of blinding light and so many new sensations that my brain can barely process them all. I let out a yell, as does Amata, and bring my hands up to cover my face. The cool air-conditioned environment that I've grown up knowing is gone, and for the first time, I feel what can only be sunlight on my skin.
The light slowly fades, and I see Amata crouched down in the dirt - I'm pretty sure it's dirt - next to me. Her eyes flick to the blue, mostly cloudless sky above us and snap back down in fear.
"Zack?" she whispers. "You still with me?"
"I'm here," I say back, reaching out and taking her hand. The largest room the the Vault was the atrium, and even then I had a roof over my head. But when I look up at the sky, it's as if there's just an empty space that stretches on forever. I've seen pictures of it, of course, but seeing it surround you is an entirely different experience.
When we become certain we won't fall away into the endless mass above, we stand up and make our way to the cliff a short distance away from the door. There's a rusted blue sign with white letters reading 'Scenic Overlook' at the edge of the cliff. I look down and see the cracked tarmac of a road below us curving into the burned-out town a short distance away.
Beyond that, the Wasteland stands on the horizon; an endless see of brown dotted with a bit of black and grey every now and then. To the far east is a collection of old concrete and steel buildings; the former capital of the United States, Washington D.C. I can see the dome of the Capital Building and the Washington Monument holding onto a bit of their pre-war glory.
"What's that out there?" Amata says, pointing east in the direction of the city. I follow her arm to what she's pointing at. At first I just dismissed it as a pile of scrap metal, but now I can see that it's actually an oval-shaped wall.
"A town maybe?" I suggest. It's obviously man-made, so what else can it be other than a settlement?
It's only a short walk, but we keep our guns drawn as we make our way through the old town. I remember seeing a map of the area around the Vault, and I remember the town being called Springvale. With my heart pounding, I check every corner of every building, but the place seems empty of life.
The pile of metal we saw from the cliff is indeed a town. It's walled in with a large gate out front and a sniper's nest above. The sniper looks at me suspiciously but doesn't train his rifle on us. I lift up my hand in a greeting.
He shows no acknowledgement.
There's a covered area in front of the main gate built onto a small hill, at the base of which is the strangest thing I've ever seen. Two men are talking in front of the town. One of them is wearing a red long-sleeved shirt underneath a vest and cargo pants, as well as an eye patch. He's talking with a man in a dirty yellow jumpsuit and a cap that covers his dark-skinned face. What makes it weird is the creature next to them.
It vaguely resembles a cow, only it's skin is a sickly yellow color and it has two heads that seem to operate independently, brownish horns and a giant udder. It looks at the two of us as we approach. The two men notice us and we freeze, but they wave us over. I'm glad to see a few friendly people.
"Well hot damn!" The man with the eye patch says in pleasant surprise. "Now I haven't seen one of those Vault jumpsuits in a long time!"
I frown at his words; how could he have seen a Vault jumpsuit before? Or was he talking about a different Vault?
"Hi," Amata says nervously. "This is Zack. I'm Amata."
"Good to meet ya," the man says, shaking our hands. "Name's Billy Creel, but you two can just call me Billy, alright? Everyone does. I'm just out taking care of a little trading with my friend Harith here."
The black man gives us a friendly grin and nodds. "Interested in buying?"
I hesitate. "Um...we don't have any money."
Billy laughs. "Harith, you slow bastard. These two are just outta the Vault, remember?"
He turns back to me. "You two head on in. Look me up at the saloon when I'm done here. I can tell you two have a story!"
We nod, and stop just outside of the gate.
"He seems friendly enough," Amata comments in a optimistic tone.
"I kinda expected everyone out here to be like that sniper," I say. The gates open, either pulled by hand or by a mechanism, and we step into the town.
What lies before us is a crater with a number of metal shacks, platforms and walkways lining the town. Pipes run along the ground, leaking in a few spots. Everything, and I mean everything, seems to have a layer of dirt on it.
I don't have much time to survey the little town before I spot a figure walking up the crater toward us.
"Well I'll be damned!" he says as soon as we're within earshot. "You two are from that Vault! I ain't seen one of those jumpsuits in a long time!"
There's something genuine about the man's friendly nature, we makes me relax as he stops to survey us.
"Name's Lucas Simms," he introduces himself. "Town sheriff, and mayor too when the need arises."
We take turns shaking his hand. He's dark-skinned, but that could be from the sun for all I know. His beard is neatly trimmed, and he's wearing an old cowboy hat and duster. If it wasn't for the assault rifle strapped to his back, I might mistake him for someone out of an old west film.
"I'm Zack. This is Amata."
"Good to meet ya both," Lucas says. "You treat my people nice, and you're welcome to stay as long as you like."
"Can I ask what what this place is called?" Amata says awkwardly.
Amata gives the sheriff a confused look. The latter man points to the center of the crater. I think you can guess what's at the bottom.
"Oh my holy God," I say and Lucas laughs. "Shouldn't someone disarm that thing?"
"I don't trust any of the locals to tinker with it," Lucas says, turning serious again. "And besides, Cromwell and those crazies from the church worship the damn thing."
He gives me a suspicious look. "Why? You think you got the know-how to disarm that thing?"
"Maybe," I say. I can't give him a definitive answer, but I won't know for sure if I don't look. "I can take a look at it for you."
Lucas bites his lip, considering my offer. "Well alright. There'll be 100 caps in it for you if you can disarm that thing."
My mind puts two and two together and works out that 'caps' means money, and I'm tempted to accept since I'm broke, but I shake my head.
"I don't need a reward," I tell the sheriff, who looks astounded. "I couldn't sleep at night knowing the town's at risk."
Lucas' face softens. "Well that's mighty decent of you. Just...don't go blowing us all up now, okay?"
He leaves us alone. I turn to Amata and notice she's frowning. It's not hard to guess why.
"You sure that's a good idea?" she says. "We're not exactly rich right now."
"Amata, this is a town full of people. Christ, there's probably kids here too," I counter. "Amata, demanding a reward for making this town safe is like holding these people hostage. I don't think that's what you want."
Amata looks at the ground. I didn't mean to make her feel guilty, and seeing her like this hurts. I see her wipe a single tear from her cheek.
"Amata," I say gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. I'm restraining myself because I don't know how the town will react if we openly show our feelings for each other. "I'm sorry. I just think this is the kind of thing we should do, reward or no reward."
Amata composes herself and nods. "Alright. I just think we should have a little look around first."
We make our way down the crater to the bomb. Next to one building near the town center is another one of those mutated cows, and a settler is tending to a small garden nearby. He eyes us suspiciously, but I think our jumpsuits are making the locals think we're not a threat.
Across from that is what can only be a diner of some kind. There's a small counter with three stools, and I'm slightly reminded of the Vault's diner. There's a woman leaning against the wall behind it, with a dirty jumpsuit, dirty blonde hair and rather thick eyebrows. She moves in closer to speak with us.
"Now I know I've never seen you in Megaton before," she says, shaking our hands. "Lemme guess, just passing through?"
We both nod.
"We get people trying to settle down here all the time," the woman continues, eyeing our jumpsuits. "You two from that Vault, huh? Good to see some new blood. I'm Jenny, Jenny Stahl."
"So when did you two get with each other?"
I blink. "Huh?"
Jenny laughs. "I got a gift, see. I can just sorta tell what's going on between people. Gut feelin' says you two are lovers."
There's no point lying, so Amata tells her the truth, "Only a few days."
That surprises me. So much has happened, but I've been out of my coma for less than a week.
"We escaped today," I tell Jenny. "Stuff happened, and we decided we didn't wanna stay."
Jenny gives me an odd look. "How old are you two?"
I rub the back of my head and say in a low voice, "Sixteen."
Jenny looks amazed. "You didn't think this through did ya?"
"Well no," I admit, suddenly feeling like I'm being interrogated, "but at the same time, I can't say I regret leaving."
Jenny shrugs. "If you say so. Oh, hey Lucy."
Another woman just took a seat at the counter. Her blonde hair is tied back, and much brighter than Jenny's. Instead of a jumpsuit, she's wearing a sleeveless black coat over a singlet top and pants. She gives us a smile.
"Mornin' Jenny. These two fresh out of the Vault?"
"Yep," Jenny nodded. "Even better; we got two lovers here."
Lucy makes a noise of surprise and grins at us. "Oh I just love romance stories."
"Yeah, because you wish you lived in one," a female settler whispers as she passes. Jenny scowls and moves to stop her, but Lucy just waves her away. "Nah, let 'em run their mouths Jenny. They'll be wishing they had me after I find myself a girl."
Jenny frowns and leans back against the wall. Lucy realizes what she's just said and says in a flustered voice, "Oh, I...um, I can explain."
I can't quite understand her reaction for a moment, then it hits me: we both come from a Vault that must surely cling to pre-war attitudes. I offer her a grin. "Hey, it's none of our business."
"Right," Amata says quietly, and I'm surprised to see she's blushing slightly.
Lucy looks relieved. "Thanks guys. I'm used to people not caring up here. It's a deadly world out there, so who can blame you for exploring yourself, ya know?"
I shrug. "Guess so."
Amata mumbles out an agreement, and I still can't understand what's got her so flustered.
We bid Lucy and Jenny goodbye, and I pull Amata aside. "You okay?"
Amata is extremely red in the face, and she stammers, "I-I...it's just, it's hard to explain."
I just nod. "Take your time if you need."
She now looks extremely pale. "Zack, I've never told anyone this before. The Vault was just never the place for it. When I started having feelings for you I thought it'd be okay, but now that we're out here I can't keep it a secret."
She takes a deep breath, and her voice drops to a whisper, "You remember that girl in the Vault? The one that killed herself a few years back because of how everyone teased her?"
I nod, remembering who she's talking about. There was a girl from the other class, a loner for the most part. Her father caught her in another girl's bed, and spread the rumor around. After weeks of torment, she broke into the armory and stole a pistol, killing the other girl out of mercy before shooting herself. It was where I got the idea for my suicide.
"Well," Amata swallows nervously. "I'm like that, but I'm kinda...in-between."
Finally it dawns on my why she was so flustered around Lucy.
"I always thought you could only be one or the other," Amata continued, "but even after I wanted you, the feelings didn't go away. It's like I'm some kind of...freak or something."
I can't listen to her insult herself, so I pull her close and kiss her. She makes a sound of surprise but doesn't protest.
"Amata, you're not a freak," I say when we break apart. "You're bisexual. It means you're attracted to both sexes. It's no less unnatural than being straight or gay."
Amata looks at me with a cautious expression. "You're not mad? You don't think that I should..."
"Suppress it?" I finish, and she nods. "That's not how it works, Amata. You can't suppress something that's a part of you. Don't try to hold it back. When something's a part of you, sometimes it's better to embrace it."
A bit of color returns to her, and she looks relieved. "Thank you. I was just worried that you'd think I don't love you."
"I know that you do," I say, "and I know that you'd never betray me. But you can't shut this side out."
"Okay," Amata whispers. "Thank you. I just want you to know that I love you, Zack. That won't change no matter what I do."
She wraps her arms around me in the type of hug you give someone when you're half-expecting to lose them. I return the hug, gently holding her. The funny thing is, I'm not mad or disappointed in the slightest. And no, it's not because I'm trying for a threesome (although I wouldn't strictly be against it).
The truth is, sometimes you just have to give each other a bit of space, especially in this world. Like Lucy said; it's a deadly world.