“Oh! You got him good!”
A drawn-out silence.
“Not so good. He’s still breathin’.”
Their footsteps grew louder, as did the heavy tread of their robotic companion.
For the better part of an hour I’d remained still, trying to conserve my energy and keep from passing out. Going by what I’d seen on the previous night, I had a good idea of what I was up against and I’d formed something resembling a plan. It was just a matter of waiting.
Grit crunched underfoot right by my left ear. “Hey! You awake?”
The words had been spoken by the second voice, and preceded a sharp kick to my shoulder that sent pain shooting through my body.
What little light remained of the day was dimmed, and I opened my eyes slightly.
Two men stood over me, both of them tall with khaki uniforms and brown hair. I couldn’t tell them apart.
“Hey, hey,” said the first, punching the other’s arm, “I think this that Vault-boy, Falcon. Show me the bounty. Quick.”
If any doubt had remained about the identity of my shooters, that comment eliminated it. Talon Company. Again. I let my eyelids fall closed.
The rustling of paper.
“Age. Eyes. Hair. Clothes. It all fits,” the first had a high-pitched voice, his words tumbling out in a quick patter that seemed always excited.
By comparison, the second voice was deeper and slower, “Hey! Is your name Valken?”
I forced my eyes open to glare at him with as much disdain as could be mustered through the pain.
The second chuckled. “It’s him alright. Patch him up. We’ll take him back to Fort Bannister alive. I could do with the extra caps.” He paused briefly. “SB-Command. Guard mode.”
“Hold still,” said the second.
I felt a pressure against my wounded shoulder that sent pain lancing across my body once more, followed by a spreading coolness. He waited about twenty seconds, then began to poke and prod. I grimaced, readying myself against the coming agony, but nothing came. I’d been anaesthetised. The numbness was a welcome relief.
“If you want to make this easy for both of us, I need you to roll over so I can get the bullet out.”
Knowing that it would hurt far more if he had to force me, I did as he requested. The sensation of a metal implement burrowing about in my shoulder and scraping against bone, while causing only a slight discomfort, was curious.
“Why?” I asked, my voice little more than a hoarse croak.
“The cleaner the wound, the less chance of sepsis. And we get a bigger bounty if we bring you in alive. It’s about our profit, not your wellbeing.” The remainder of the operation passed in silence and the last of the light was fading as the two mercenaries bandaged me up.
I was on the cusp of sleep, worn out by the day’s trials, when I heard the first of them hiss. “Hey, Jeb. I noticed he got one of them Pip-Boys. Just imagine if we could sell that… We could retire, get away from this place. Maybe head out to New Vegas, or Diamond City, or somewhere away from this hellhole.”
The reply was slow to come and wistful in its delivery, “It certainly is a dream, Alden. Too bad we can’t. If Commander Jabsco doesn’t believe that he’s the Vault dweller, that device is our king in the Caravan. It’s the closest we have to concrete proof that he is who we say he is.”
“If we take it and run, though, ain’t no need to go back to the Fort. What Jabsco don’t know can’t hurt him.”
“Ever the optimist, Alden. My time on this Earth has been pretty miserable, but I’m glad that I get to spend it with you… You know the punishment for desertion, and word would certainly get around of a pair of poor folk like us trying to hawk something as valuable as that. Sooner or later it would get back to the higher-ups, and then they’d start asking why they haven’t heard anything about that Vault kid in a while. It’s impossible.”
“No it ain’t. We could go somewhere the Company isn’t: Salt Lake City, Point Lookout, Dallas, Far Harbour. They wouldn’t come after us in any of those places.”
“That’s only because they’re all either destroyed, abandoned, or overrun with God knows what. No matter how many caps we had, we wouldn’t have much of a life there. It’s better if we stay the course, save what we can, and retire in good time.”
Silence fell after this exchange, and comforted by their resolution to not kill me out of hand, I was asleep within minutes.
I was woken, once again, in the middle of the night, this time by stabbing pains spreading out from my shoulder. You might not believe it, but I was thankful for it. Had the anaesthetic lasted until morning, allowing me to sleep through, my plan would have been much harder to put into action. I sat up and took stock of my surroundings.
The two mercenaries snored on my left, their bodies pressed together. My backpack sat to my right, with my weapons still attached. I was surprised that they hadn’t taken them; perhaps they assumed that I posed no threat in my injured state. The robot sat a short distance from my feet, its upper body rotating slowly as it kept watch on the surrounding area. Despite its imposing figure, my attention was focussed on the men.
Strange as it seemed, I felt a sense of kinship towards them. Like me, they sought to turn their lives to a pursuit that they enjoyed, with their current circumstances being little more than a means to that end. At the same time, they’d shot and captured me, and planned to sacrifice me to advance their own situation. The conversation I’d overheard had softened my opinion of them, but it wasn’t enough to overcome my survival instinct.
When the robot’s optical sensor next swivelled away from me, I reached down to my waist and took hold of one of Reed’s pulse grenades. It landed just short of the robot’s legs, but it was close enough. A brief, brilliant flash of light and the machine went berserk. Half a dozen firearms of all types and calibres shattered the night’s tranquillity, jerking both of the mercenaries awake. They both sprang into action, seeking to find a way to calm the robot. It was the response that I’d hoped for, and I took advantage of the confusion to activate V.A.T.S.
As its cocktail of chemicals flooded through my body, I felt the numbing of my pain and noticed the familiar sluggishness of those around me. What would have been impossible without V.A.T.S. was made simple. Before either of the mercenaries could react or even notice me, I had unsheathed Alden’s combat knife and slashed both of their throats open. As their eyes widened in surprise and their bodies slumped to the ground, I crouched down to avoid the robot’s wild attacks and to get in underneath its chassis.
Rarely have I been so glad for Dad’s teachings as I was in those moments. Even though Vault 101 had been home to only a single Mr Handy utility bot, Dad had taken pains to drill me on the designs on a wide range of different models, including the SB. Disabling it was as simple as unscrewing a hatch on its underside and dislodging the battery case. This was achieved in a matter of seconds, and the unit powered down.
In the aftermath of those few frantic moments, I remained beneath the machine, feeling the chemical flood subside and the agony in my shoulder grow once more. Aside from the sound of blood thrumming in my ears, the world’s usual silence had settled once more. It was peaceful, but I was already worried that it wouldn’t last if anyone was about. Surely, any hardened wanderer of the Wastes would be attracted by the explosion and sudden cessation of the noises that had broken out. Scavengers, cannibals, mutants, ghouls, mercenaries; any class of Wasteland resident would have reason to investigate, and I didn’t want to meet them in my weakened state.
I forced myself back to my feet, pilfered the meagre food stores of the mercenaries, then picked up my backpack. The sudden burst of pain was unbearable. I clutched at my injured shoulder and felt wetness. When I drew my hand away, the weak moonlight showed the rust-coloured stains that told me that my wound had been reopened.
Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done. I set off, once again, for the east. Within an hour, in the midst of a sparse smattering of stunted trees, I was overcome with weakness. I managed to crawl into the pathetic shelter offered by a small hollow partly covered by an ancient fallen tree and there slept away most of the following day.
When I woke, it was to a fever and still greater weakness. I ate, drank, and pressed on. But again, I didn’t get far, and I began to fear that death would claim me long before I could return to the Citadel.
I don’t know how it is with others, but the fear of death made me re-evaluate the course of my life. I had undertaken to do what I could to make Project Purity functional, but it didn’t impassion me as it had my father. In seeking out the G.E.C.K., I was carrying on his work—acting as his insurance policy—and I had never wanted that. I resolved then that if I survived, my life would be turned to a new goal that would allow me to create my own meaning, and although I had been indecisive earlier, a path had been laid before me. Death’s shadow offered a new resolution.
Although my body was still racked by the telltale signs of spreading infection, I forced myself to continue on after a few hours, but a short spell was all that was required to wear me out and demand that I rest again.
In this manner, the journey that had taken me four days to Vault 87 took four weeks on the way back.
Four weeks of travelling in tiny stretches and taking refuge in whatever hovel or ditch seemed as though it would hide me during the in-between hours. Four weeks of jumping at shadows, almost completely unable to defend or help myself. Four weeks of growing pain and delirium as infection spread throughout my body and malnutrition and starvation tightened their grip on me. In short, four weeks of absolute hell.
When I finally did arrive back at the Citadel, it was on my hands and knees, my body emaciated, my clothes in tatters, and with tufts of hair falling out. Later, those that knew me told me that I had been unrecognisable and the only reason they had taken me in was because, somewhere in my half-mad ravings, I mentioned their names. For a long time, they feared I would die. I don’t remember any of that.
What I do remember is waking up in the infirmary, relatively pain-free and in complete control of my senses for the first time in what seemed a very long time indeed. Although I felt rested and comfortable, my throat was burning. I glanced to my left, where sat an unmasked Brotherhood of Steel soldier who was reading.
“Water,” I said.
My voice was nothing more than a hoarse breath, but the soldier leapt as if tasered. He looked about wildly for a moment, then began to settle back into his seat.
“Water,” I demanded again, slightly louder.
This time, he looked straight at me with wide eyes. “By Maxson… You’re awake.”
Then, without fetching me any water, he bolted from the room, leaving me alone with the sick and injured. I sighed and, too weak to rise myself, hoped he would return.
When he finally did, he brought with him Lieutenant Lyons, Garza, and Janice. But no water.
Garza and Lyons both smiled at me, but Janice was more severe. I doubted that she even could smile; her blisters had long since faded and her face was left looking as though it was melted and immobile.
Although she had been the last to enter the infirmary, she pushed forward to be the first to address me, “Did you find it?” her voice carried a tone of desperation, while her eyes revealed resignation. I knew that she was only asking the question for final confirmation. Even had I been unconscious in the infirmary for a few hours, they would have searched through my pockets and backpack. Janice knew, as did they all, that my journey had been in vain.
I understood all of this in a moment, as if by instinct, then shook my head gently. Janice sighed, nodded, then silently turned and left the room.
Garza then laid a hand on my shoulder. “If you’re thinking she hates you, you’re wrong. She’s just disappointed and we can’t blame her. It’s been a long, unproductive few months… Although, I suppose it’s been moreso for you than for any of us, laid up in this bed a rambling lunatic. There was a time there we thought you’d lost your mind, but hell, you didn’t even lose your arm.” He chuckled to himself as he looked down at his new, metallic leg.
“That’s enough, Garza,” said Lyons, stepping forward, “he still needs to rest.”
He nodded, but kept his eyes fixed on me for a moment longer. “I’ll be back to see you again soon, V, and I’ll bring Dan with me. I know he wants to talk to you.”
With Garza gone, it was Lyons’ turn to speak, “Welcome back, Wanderer. Is there anything I can get you?”
“Water,” I croaked, for the third time.
While she went to fetch some, it struck me that Garza had said “months”. Of course, I had no way then of knowing how long I’d actually been travelling on the way back to the Citadel, but it hardly seemed possible that it had been that long. How long had I been in the infirmary? No matter the answer, it was too long.
When Lyons returned, she took the seat that had been vacated by the soldier set to watch over me. “You’re giving up on Project Purity, aren’t you?”
I coughed, causing a trickle of water to spill onto my shirt. “How…”
“You may not remember, but you’ve done a lot of talking since you got back, most of it unintelligible, but I’ve sat beside you for hours and listened. It’s obvious that you have something different in mind. What is it?”
“Revenge.” Although the word tore at my throat, it was a relief to say it and to share my newfound determination.
“Against who? The ones who shot you?”
I nodded faintly. “Talon.”
Disclaimer: The preceding is a narrative account of the author’s playthrough of Fallout 3. It is not paid content. Fallout 3 and all related trademarks remain the property of Bethesda Softworks. OnlySP.com team members have no personal or professional affiliation with Bethesda Softworks or any related companies.