Read Part 29: “So Far, So Familiar” here.

I felt odd. Though I knew that I was cool and dry, seated uncomfortably in a pod deep underground, it didn’t seem that way. There was a chill dampness at my back while my belly basked in warmth, with soft light from above filtering through my closed eyelids to create a strange greyness. A gentle crackling sound accompanied even the slightest of movements. These elements came together to make me feel comfortable enough to fall asleep. No wonder they called those pods ‘Tranquillity Loungers’.

“What are you doing down there, sport?”

My eyes jerked open at the voice. A man stood over me with a kindly smile. There was something wrong about him, and the sky above.

“I… I don’t know.”

His smile widened as he stretched out his hand to me. “I haven’t seen you around these parts before. Are you new to Tranquility Lane?”

As I got to my feet and looked around, I realised what was wrong: the world was bleached of colour. And more, my surroundings were a near-perfect replica of pre-War suburbia. We’d been shown videos enough back in the Vault to recognise the world that we had lost.

It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps Vault 101 was not an archetype. Perhaps the different Vaults had been designed with different intentions. We had been told that our job was to repopulate the world after the radiation level outside dropped (although I had long since begun to question that, as my forays had proven the outside world safe yet the doors had still not been thrown open). Perhaps Vault 112 was designed to provide instruction for how to build a community within the new world. I was intrigued.

“You look lost, sport. Is there anything I can help you with?”

I glanced back at the man, and became confused once more. Judging by the white picket fence behind him, he would have been of only average height, and yet he towered above me. What was going on?

I looked down. And jumped.

Gone was the jumpsuit, replaced by a striped shirt and tight jeans. Gone was my Pip-Boy 3000, replaced by a simple watch. Gone were the wiry muscles in my hands, replaced by the smooth skin of a child.

“What’s going on? What is this place?”

He frowned at me. “This… This is Tranquility Lane. It’s…” he seemed lost for words.

“It’s not real.” As if to prove my statement, the world flickered momentarily. “It can’t be…”

“Valken! It’s so good to see you again. I was afraid you wouldn’t make it. I’ll take care of him, Mr Nesbaum.” The man’s face showed a momentary fear, but he patted me on the head and passed by without another word.

Turning around, I came face-to-face with a girl, about eleven years old with deep-set eyes that were a deeper black than anything I’d ever seen. They seemed like pits, sucking in all light, all intelligence, all joy. Trailing behind her was a dog, which wagged its tail on seeing me and started forward.

“Doc, no!” she brandished a stick and the dog cowered back with a whine, tail tucked between its legs.

Before I could think of a response, she’d taken me by the hand and was leading me across the road to a playground on an oasis of wilderness within the asphalt circle that formed the centre of Tranquility Lane.

“It’s so fun having new people to play with. So long as they co-operate… You will co-operate with me, won’t you, Valken?”

“How do you know my name?”

“In order to discover things,” her voice had changed, becoming deeper, older, and decidedly un-American, “you merely have to open your eyes and ears.”

No wonder Mr Nesbaum had been terrified. The voice that had issued from Betty’s mouth was masculine. Was I, perhaps, now face-to-face with the Overseer of Vault 112? Whether yes or no, I would have to be careful. I couldn’t know what this little girl was capable of.

“Where’s my father? How do I get out of here?”

“So many questions…” her voice had, once more, become that of a child. “But if you want answers, you’ll have to play with me.”

I got the sense that she wasn’t talking about tag, or hide-and-seek. “What game do you have in mind?”

She smiled. “Oh, we’re going to have fun together. First of all, I want you to make Timmy Nesbaum cry.”

“How is that ‘playing’?”

“It makes things more interesting. It’s fun.” With that statement, I realised that I wasn’t just dealing with a child who was more than she appeared, but a sadist. I could only guess what else she had in mind. Nevertheless, her request wasn’t so extreme that I wouldn’t do it to save both myself and my father from the simulation.

In less than five minutes I’d found Timmy Nesbaum, a fat boy sitting at a lemonade on the side of the road. “Say, you’re new here, ain’t you? You look like you could use a drink.”

I accepted his offer, wondering how I was going to make him cry, and leaned against the counter. “How long have you been in Tranquility Lane?”

A troubled expression crossed his face. “I been here just about as long as I can remember.”

“It doesn’t seem a very exciting place. You must get bored.”

“Not at all. Playground’s a fun place to go, and my family plays board games every other night, or we listen to the radio together. Can’t hardly imagine a better town.

“Besides, it’s not like nothing new ever happens. Betty only got a new dog a few days ago, and he’s the best thing ever. Always wanted a dog of my own, but my parents think its a bad idea. They say it’ll make things more dangerous because it’ll attract the Chinese. They eat dogs, you know?”

A new dog? Was it possible? Surely not. But then, if an old man could appear as a young girl, then how else might this simulation challenge perceptions of the real world?

His final comments had been based on the same War-era propaganda that we’d all seen in Vault 101, cementing my surmise that the simulation was meant to replicate that period of world history. It was an intriguing nugget, but nothing more. What interested me was what else he had said.

I tried to make my voice seem as concerned as possible, “Sounds like you’re close to your parents?”

“Well, yeah. Every other family here in Tranquility Lane has problems, but not mine. We’re as close as can be.”

I patted his shoulder. “That’s… not what Betty told me. She said that she overheard your parents talking about a divorce?”

“What?” His face seemed to crumple. A mere child. Seeing his composure crack like it did, slowly falling in on itself as tears welled in his eyes, was heartbreaking.

“Apparently your dad said that he was unhappy with how much weight you were putting on, or something…” The tears overflowed and he sank to the ground.

I felt cruel. It seemed not to matter whether I was acting for my own benefit, or seeking to find a middle solution to a difficult problem, I could do nothing but hurt people, ruin lives. Here was another crushed face that would be burned into my memory forevermore. Knowing it was a necessary evil was no salve to conscience.

“Oh, that was spectacular,” once again, Betty’s voice was that of the old man, “You have earned yourself one question. Use it wisely.”

Who are you, really? Why this simulation? What’s the purpose of Vault 112? How do I get out? These were just some of the questions that flitted through my mind, but I knew I had to keep on-point. “Where’s my father?”

When she giggled, the years were stripped away and I found myself standing before Amata as she was at twelve. We’d been playing hide-and-seek and she’d just thrown open the door to the cupboard bathing me in light. She smiled, stepped in, and closed the door, plunging us back into darkness. I heard her giggle, felt the caress of her hand against my cheek, then the first kiss she had ever planted on my lips.

“It’s no secret. He’s right in front of you.”

Her words seemed to make no sense. I was still caught up in the sensation. Standing in the cupboard, her body pressed to mine… It had seemed to real. Was it just my memory, or was it something more? Some part of the simulation?

“What just happened?” I asked groggily.

“I answered your question. You don’t get to ask another.”

Her words drifted back to me and I glanced down at the dog. My father. Doc, she’d called him. There was a twisted irony in that.

“I need another question.”

“Well…” again with the old man’s voice, “you’ve already ruined one little boy’s day. Let’s up the ante. I want you to ruin two people’s lives this time. Break up the Rockwells’ marriage, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

Sadist. The word, filled with scorn, screamed in my mind as I turned away. And she wanted me to become like her. For what? Her own amusement? I wished I had a choice.

I had found the Rockwell house by reading the names on the mailboxes and was passing through the front gate when I was stopped by a hand on my shoulder.

“Be careful, my boy.” The words came from a woman with a heavily lined face and a bowed back, though she didn’t seem old. “I’ve seen you talking to that awful girl. Everything is not what it seems.”

As portentous as her words might have seemed at another time, I already knew what she meant, so stared at her blankly.

“She is no child, but the child of no-one. A demon. She never eats, never sleeps. But stays on the playground, guarding something, like Cerberus at the gates to Hades. Sometimes she strays to her lair, the abandoned house on the other side of town, but no-one knows what for. What need has she for human comfort when she is nothing of the kind? Be careful around her, my boy, for she will swallow your soul if given the chance.”

“Miss Dithers, you’d better not be scaring the children again!” The new voice, a woman’s, came from behind me. The bent lady before me recoiled and hurried away. I was left conflicted. Should I believe Miss Dithers, examine the house, and try to find my own way out of the simulation, or turn around, and ruin the marriage of the woman that had just tried to do me a good deed?

“Now, who do you belong to?” Mrs Rockwell’s voice was melodic. If I had to guess, I’d say that she would have made a fantastic singer.

I turned to face her, a smile on my face. “I’m sorry, Mrs Rockwell. I must have got turned around. I didn’t mean to interrupt your day. I’m sorry.”

I was babbling because I was excited. Here, I had the opportunity to do something right. Solve a problem without having to resort to murder, or worse. And I didn’t have to be cruel, mean, evil, or sadistic to get what I wanted. What more perfect opportunity to prove to myself that I wasn’t some kind of harbinger of doom could I hope for?

Without waiting to hear Mrs Rockwell’s response, I hurried through the neighbourhood to the abandoned, run-down house that I’d noticed, but not paid attention to, earlier. Betty’s ‘lair’.

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.

Damien Lawardorn
Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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