Wasteland Legends: A Fallout Alternate Universe

Discussion in 'Fan Art/Fan Fiction' started by Alexeij, May 29, 2018.

  1. Alexeij

    Alexeij Operation Triple Trolling

    May 29, 2018
    Hello, NMA, or do you prefer "the Dark, Unforgiving Side of the Fallout fandom" these days?
    Have I just signed up to post this? Absolutely, but I've also been reading posts on and off for some time. Compared to many here, I'm a latecomer to Fallout, in that I really got into it a year or so after NV came out due to age, hardware, and localization constraints, and then went back to play the original title as I found them on Steam.

    Anyway, I've been working on an AU series for a couple of years now, very unimaginatively dubbed "Wasteland Legends". The first three stories (sort of) are going pretty well at the Madhouse, aka Fanfiction.net, and I've been lucky enough to find a solid group of repeat reviewers who give me consistent feedback. As much as I love those guys, however, different people hang around different websites, so I'm submitting the stories to different audiences to get different opinions on the matter.

    The outline for the stories, as it goes, is the following:
    - WL: Conception: the One-shot point of divergence for the whole series during Fallout 1 (Complete)
    - WL: The Thin Line: First part of the largely AU adaptation of Fallout 3 (Complete)
    - WL: Claw Marks: Second half of the Fallout 3 AU adaptation, currently being outlined.
    - WL: Missing in Action: The sequel I've started before the prequels, beginning as a NV fic but incorporating elements from most of the games. (Book I Complete, past halfway through Book II).

    All stories are on Fanfiction, of course, but I'd like to repost them here chapter by chapter if people are interested.

    As far as the series is concerned, most of Tactics is canon and actively incorporate, and so are elements of Van Buren (The Hounds of Hecate, Derek Greenway, Diana & the Nursery, Victor motherfucking Presper and the Prisoner, and so on). At the same time, I've started writing this before I actually processed some of the design shifts between the original games and the Bethesda generation, so feral ghouls exist and run, even though they shouldn't (and that nearly causes cognitive dissonance in the "Lone Wanderer"), and there are probably (only a scant few, I hope) minor lore breaks here and there for the sake of storytelling and narrative cohesion.

    I'll start by posting "Conception", which so far is the only piece taking place directly during the Fallout 1 timeline.
     
  2. Alexeij

    Alexeij Operation Triple Trolling

    May 29, 2018
    Wasteland Legends: Conception

    She should have gone back when the voices shattered Katja's sanity.

    She should have turned around and fled when the walls of bubbling flesh reached out for Tycho and swallowed the giggling Ranger whole.

    Now, in the depths of the Cathedral, nobody could hear Kristen scream.

    Her silver tongue had betrayed her only another time before. Back then, it earned her a boot out of the Vault, an example of being too persuasive for her own good. She should have learned from that, but for all her wit and social intelligence, introspection was never her forte. Too much ego by half for that, Ian often teased her.

    Kristen's voice, capable of charming and compelling mobsters and idealists alike, broke as the Master's mind dug deeper and latched onto the image of her erstwhile lover, morphing and warping it as it searched, unable to care for damage and consequences, only for results and the proof hidden behind her mental barriers.

    It didn't take long for those to crumble as the Master forced her to relive Ian's immolation, every excruciating moment amplified, every sliver of guilt and grief magnified into a wrecking ball, its momentum increased by the weight of her lies.

    Brittle Ian, who'd believed his love was met truthfully, when she only needed protection in her early days and a good-looking distraction later on, after Tycho had supplanted him. Gullible Ian, whom she'd illuded by dangling the prospect of a family before his nose, to the point that he jumped without hesitation between her and a flamethrower to protect that future.

    If it weren't for the psychic axe splitting her brain and soul in two, Kristen would have appreciated the irony of suffering a fate worse than death for telling the simple, unadulterated truth for once.

    Was it karmic retribution for all the times she warped it and through it the minds of her audience to pursue her agenda, or just because she could? Because it was fun?

    Even if she'd been capable of introspection, Kristen was in no condition to even contemplate that question. Not as the Master ravaged her mind to find confirmation of a truth he wasn't able to accept or see by himself, even when it was as clear as the daylight she'd never see again.

    After all, who'd ever seen or heard of a super mutant baby, right?

    And just like that, she found herself no longer a prisoner within her own mind. She came to, curled into a ball, arms wrapped around her belly. The fleshy ground pulsated under her. She tasted blood and smelled canine fur: Dogmeat was curled around her. Together, they formed a breathing impression of yin and yang. The doggie's dry tongue lapped at her face, but Kristen could barely feel it.

    Her body didn't feel her own anymore. That veneer of control she'd fought to maintain against everything the wastes had thrown at her, even in the face of the truth she'd learned in the Glow, was gone.

    "You speak the truth. Truth!" Three voices shouted and whimpered as one, with words and mind both. Kristen heard one and felt the other, but couldn't muster up any satisfaction or gloating.

    "All my sacrifices, all the things I've done. Done! In the name of healing and progress. My race. Race! Race. It's flawed. There can be no future without procreation. No mastering the wastes without breeding. Failure. Failure! The master race, mutants, flawed!" The complex and Kristen's mind alike shook with the power of the Master's despair.

    "But you. Normals carry the solution. No mutant babies. Yes. You carry the solution. Mother. Pure strain Mother! The FEV-2 produces only failures, no babies, but you are pure. Your mind is awake! Awake. Awake!"

    Horror gifted Kristen with enough coherence to respond, and yet her lips remained sealed.

    "We destroyed your vats of goo at Mariposa. The Brotherhood is on their way." Why, why hadn't she waited for them? The Cathedral had beckoned her. A trap, and she'd swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. "You're done."

    "Lie! Truth! Lie. It doesn't matter. My Unity is necessary to rebuild this world. One race. One. One! One. Need a new one. Normal and mutant, merged into one. Perfect, at last. Last! Change. Last!"

    The flesh carpeting the floor began to bubble and morph, stretch and wrap around her. Dogmeat growled, rising of shaking paws. He bit and pulled at her sleeve, begging her to move.

    She tried, but her body refused to obey. The Master's mind pinned her as a cocoon swallowed her body like it had grabbed Tycho. Her own flesh fused with his, but the pain was nothing to the thousand different voices that answered the Master's call and sieged her mind from all sides.

    All were him, and he was all of them.

    "True Unity. One Race," Tycho's voice said, emerging from that amalgamation for the briefest of moments, one that lasted an eternity.

    "A new process. For the future," Katja's added, eons later.

    She struggled under their hold, pushing and clawing and biting with her mind when her body wouldn't.

    She may as well have been a toddler taking her first wobbling steps on the toe of a giant.

    0 * CONCEPTION * 0​

    In that part of her mind that was still stubbornly hers, that core that clung to her individuality yet had lost contact with her identity, she realized the Master was changing her. More importantly, he was meddling with the three lives in her belly, experimenting by the sheer power of mind and virus on Ian's and her babies.

    She'd have cried if she remembered how when the three lives became two.

    "Failure! Success! Failure. Sacrifice and solution!" The Master crowed as what had been a spark of life was taken apart and flushed from her body. "You will be the first to carry the Legacy! Legacy! A more perfect Union."

    0 * CONCEPTION * 0​

    Heat. Metal. Resolve. Pain.

    The Master was burning, and she with him. With all of them.

    "No! No! No. It's too soon. Soon! Incomplete! The process is incomplete!"

    For the first time in several lifetimes, the Master's presence retreated from her mind, leaving ruins and devastation behind like an indelible imprint.

    The creature that was once Richard Gray clung to life as stubbornly as the humans he wanted to evolve, however. Like the mental parasite he had become, as the Brotherhood sliced through her cocoon and extracted her from the belly of the beast, he attached himself to the nearest lifeform still fully in his clutches.

    Through a link that faded as the Paladins chopped away at the Master's sprawling, formless body, she felt him reach out to Dogmeat, pouring every ounce of psychic power into a last, desperate attempt at survival.

    "You. You! Animal, weak, no more. More! You will be the Guardian of my Legacy. Forever bound, forever Compelled to serve. Forever! Serve. Until my Legacy manifests, until normal and mutant will be one and the same. One. One! One..."

    0 * CONCEPTION * 0​

    Head Scribe Vree called her Initiate Dufrense. Kristen Dufrense. The Vault Dweller. Those were her names, she was told, before they'd been stripped from her. She mouthed them as Vree went over her physical, trying to make them hers again, to force them to take root and fill that endless void surrounding her thoughts ever since she'd been reborn again.

    The exams and machines said the twins were healthy. She was healthy too, despite the days - only days? - spent in gestalt with the Master. No radiation, no deformities. No FEV contaminations. The only visible signs of her imprisonment were the thick scars covering her back and limbs, from where she'd been ripped away from the Master too forcefully. That, and the damage to her larynx that ruined her voice into a croak.

    She knew otherwise. Something had changed. The Master had changed her, no matter what the exams said. Sooner or later, the Brotherhood would know. Some already called her mutant behind her back. As her belly began to swell, she knew she couldn't stay.

    The Guardian was waiting for her when she stole out of the bunker. From there, the huge dog with yellow eyes followed her in her wanderings, providing for her what the wastes refused to relent to a single pregnant woman.

    And wander she did. The woman chased after her other name, Vault Dweller, seeking the unique brand of completion that came from knowing who she was. When the gear door of Vault 13 closed behind her for the last time, however, she was still short of an answer, yet richer in nameless followers. They chose exile willingly, drawn by the mute promise of the woman who no longer poured honeyed words in their ears, but whose presence spoke directly to their minds, dwarfing the material concerns and the calls to reason and affection from their families and Overseer.

    They weren't the last to flock to her. In the aftermath of the chaos and devastation left behind by the march of the Master's army, the silent, pregnant woman and her stalwart dog were more of a presence out of the Holy Book than broken creatures of flesh and blood. Dozens, then hundreds tailed her in her peregrinations, joining without being prompted but never rebuffed, enthralled and unflinching even in the face of death by thirst, starvation, and monsters.

    Something about her spoke to their minds and once they were drawn in, they could never let go. She gifted them with hope, solace, and purpose even when she had none for herself, and they worshipped her for it.

    Had she cared to, or even fully realized the effect her awakened mind had on people, she could have been a queen, a leader to eclipse all others in history, capable of bending the will of any man or woman to her will, in such a way to make her previous dealings look like child's play.

    The part of her that thrived on such things, however, had died in the Cathedral when the Master shattered her identity as Kristen Dufrense.

    0 * CONCEPTION * 0​

    Finally, as the term of her pregnancy approached, the Guardian found them all a new home to settle, a corner of nothing untouched up until that moment by the Master and his Unity.

    When Pat the midwife put the twins in her arms and they started suckling, she cried. They weren't tears of joy. A boy and a girl, only their eyes indicated they were related. They both had Ian's eyes, a deep, warm brown she recalled fondly in her dreams of better times; yet when she looked at them, what she saw was the same yellow staining the Guardian's staring pupils at the entrance of the tent. Theirs was only buried, waiting to be awoken.

    She wanted to love them. The part of her that listened to her instincts did from the moment she lay eyes on them. And yet, she knew her instincts were no longer her own. The Master had warped them like he'd warped every part of her, tearing and discarding pieces of her until what remained was just a tool to perpetuate his Legacy. A marionette subservient to his will and with a face she barely recognized anymore slapped upon it.

    She may have carried them for nine months, but she couldn't be their mother, not truly. That choice had been taken from her, another piece of her sacrificed on the altar of his Legacy.

    That realization broke something within her she didn't realize had been there until it snapped.

    She didn't name them, leaving that burden to Pat. She couldn't bear to hold them and see the taint and promise ensconced within their tiny bodies, so she refused to feed them again, even when the Guardian, once her most loyal friend, growled and barked at her and dragged her out of her tent to Arroyo's nursery, leaving bloody bites on her arms.

    Control, on herself and others around her, had once been the driving need behind all her actions, lies, and manipulation. The Master had stripped her of any semblance and illusion of it, be it past, present, or future. He had taken everything, from her identity to her values, to her children, her own flesh and blood, making them, and her, his.

    As she stared at the canyon running around Arroyo, she could only see one path to assert control over herself again and have the final word on her destiny.

    0 * CONCEPTION * 0​

    That same night, when she left her tent, the Guardian tried to bar her way. She knew he was unable to disobey the Master's Compulsion, a fate she pitied and envied him for at the same time. If she'd been as far gone as he was, maybe she'd have been free to love her children, even if that love and freedom were only empty constructs.

    But she wasn't, couldn't be, and so she shot him until the dog couldn't stand anymore. And yet, she couldn't bring herself to deliver the killing blow, even if she knew it was the mercy the last of her companions deserved.

    She walked away instead. On the edge of the canyon, she turned around and took a deep breath. A bare foot slipped, and she just let herself go.

    0 * CONCEPTION * 0​

    The villagers found the Vault Dweller's body washed up on the bank ten miles downriver. They interred her in a temple built in her name, an inspired feat of architecture carved with zealot fervor into the side of a mountain.

    As the years passed, the memory of the woman faded, while tales of her deeds grew into legend. Her icons remained ensconced in the Temple, waiting for the Chosen One to claim them in a time of need.

    0 * CONCEPTION * 0​

    The Guardian vanished the night the Dweller died. From time to time, he'd reappear, often only in the form of yellow eyes glowing in the night. He was sighted the night the Son left Arroyo; several villagers swore they saw him when the Daughter and future Elder gave birth to her son Aki. The last time, he was there when the same man was christened Chosen One.

    Together, they left in search of the Holy Thirteen.

    0 = 0 = CONCEPTION = 0 = 0​

    Just to clear up one thing, the terminology is ambiguous in places, but the Master did not impregnate the Vault Dweller like some Japanese tentacle monster. There are lines even I won't cross. She was already pregnant with triplets by Ian, and the Master tinkered directly with their DNA to try and integrate it better with the FEV and avoid the issue of sterility, killing one in the process.
     
  3. Alexeij

    Alexeij Operation Triple Trolling

    May 29, 2018
    Next up is WL: The Thin Line's prologue. Hope you'll enjoy.

    0 = TTL = 0

    Prologue: One Last Broadcast

    Boys and girls of the wasteland, I'm back! Keep those tongues lolling like the good doggies you are! That's me alright, THREEEEE DAWG! Master of the waves and DJ extraordinaire, back to enlighten your dreary lives for one last time with the best music Galaxy News has to offer!

    Loud and proud, just like we like it!

    You might ask, "Dog, where have you been?" Well, kids, it wasn't muties this time. Papa Dog was given a choice by the new Brotherhood Elder: the Truth, or my baby. But how I say, how can you ask a man to decide between his right and left hand? How can you ask Three Dog which head to chop off?

    Boy, that didn't go well. You might have heard their broadcasts in passing, calling out to the Outcasts and those other tin-heads. The propaganda spiel. All those lovely ultimatums and conscription lists.

    But the Dog is back, thanks to our resident problem solver. My baby and I can hear you cry from here, my puppies. You thought I'd abandoned you to those marching tunes, the trumpeting coming out of our dear Elder's ass? Because one good ol' President Eden wasn't enough, right?

    Don't worry; I forgive you all for doubting the Dog. It's been a hard few months for everyone out there, some of the hardest since the Old World went nuts and rained a thousand Megatons on all of us.

    Those Frankensteins played one damn nasty trick on everyone, didn't they? Who'd have thought they had it behind their ugly mugs?

    Don't let the propaganda fool you, kiddos. It wasn't the Brotherhood, our magnanimous overlords, that broke the Horde. It wasn't Talon for sure, nor those twisted things they keep on a leash.

    It was you! Every one of you people! It was Sheriff Simms and the Megaton Volunteers. It was the Regulators, the people of Rivet City, Hood City, Big Town! Even those nutjobs all the way up in Canterbury and down in Grayditch, with their crazy bots and fire-breathing ants!

    It was the Lone Wanderer, that kid the tin heads now tell you is a terrorist and a traitor, when he carried the Truth higher than everyone, in his way.

    Ha, but don't recriminate, brothers and sisters of the wasteland. Old Elder Lyons had his heart in the right place, and so did his daughter. They gave us good years of Truth, courtesy of yours truly, and this may be the Dog's last bark, but not all good things have to end.

    Open your ears wide and listen well now.

    This wasteland has its ways to get under your skin. It makes you bitter, hateful and indifferent to the pain and suffering all around you, my dear friends, but until even a single soul burns with the Good Fight, hope won't fail.

    I remember saying these very words to the kid, the Lone Wanderer you know, not the new Elder, not too long after he dodged a slave collar from Talon and came back from my old hometown. There was a fire in his eyes even then, and it told me, "Watch out Dog, this is one kid who can change things."

    Boy, he did. No fairytale ending, but that's not worth a laugh in the world we live in. He took our corner of the wasteland on his shoulders for a little while, one man, and fought the Good Fight.

    Now he's gone, he left, I don't know. He didn't tell me, you see. But even if he's gone for good, remember the lesson he taught all of us.

    For better or worse, all it takes to change the world is one man. And I know that others like him are out there somewhere, listening to this mad Dog howling to the moon. Don't be scarce, my friends. Your wasteland needs you.

    Ha! You hear that? These are the Vertibirds landing in the square. Sorry, Brothers. My baby has other plans for the day.

    This is Guy Mitchell from the South West, our last entry at Galaxy News, with Heartaches by the Number. Let's enjoy it together, folks, and dream of better times.

    It's been a fun ride. Now the Dog has guests to welcome.

    AWHOOOOOO!
     
  4. Alexeij

    Alexeij Operation Triple Trolling

    May 29, 2018
    The Thin Line: Buried I

    Hogarth Mitchell awoke to the voice of the Overseer on Vault 101's PA.

    "All residents out of bed: the night cycle has ended. All workers are expected to report to their stations by 6:45 sharp. Breakfast will be served from 6:00 to 6:30 in the cafeteria. Security and Prosperity to you all."

    The last ghostly image of a smiling Susie Mack melted against the rust-covered panels of the ceiling and Hogarth sighed through sleep-parched lips, inhaling the stale air that permeated the room.

    The air-filtering pump was broken. Again. It was going to be a shitty day. Again.

    Bolstered by the positive thinking the nineteen-year-old rolled on one side and clawed at the nightstand with a grunt. He missed the Pip-Poy on the first try; on the second he actually managed to push the bulky watch on the grilled floor, where it rattled on and rolled as far as its awkward shape allowed it, but still far enough to avoid Hogarth's stretching fingers.

    The young man gave up and with another grunt he righted himself on the bed, wincing as the springs creaked user his weight. With a yawn and another effort of will he stood and plodded to the other side of his one-room abode, bare feet avoiding the grilled portions of the mismatched pavement with the ease of practice.

    The mirror was decorated by a thin, webbing crack half its length, and Hogarth reckoned his face didn't improve the poor object's condition. His curly brown hair was blotched with dry oil and assorted grime and tangled in knots that would give pause even to Butch De Loria's aggressive combs, if the guy cared for him beyond spitting fat globs in his direction or gloating like a pig whenever Hogarth had the misfortune to cross paths with the former bane of his existence.

    'At least I can still aim straight, Polyphemus.'

    The rest of him was just as destitute. He'd have to ask Stanley to lend him his razor again soon, unless he wanted to catch lice or God knew what else lingered in the old tunnels. And a shower wouldn't be out of place either. Or rather, a full shower. He had just a bar of soap in store for when Floyd was bit again by a radroach or something and he could finally enjoy some long overdue time in the water without the flow being cut abruptly for 'maintenance worries' or 'recycling policies.'

    'You'd guess the guy would come up with something more original since we both bloody work in Maintenance, but God forbid.'

    The sink sputtered brown water when he turned the tap and Hogarth patiently waited the thirty or so seconds it took for it to clear by applying paste to his brush and grimacing at the foul odor. Two minutes later, he was a bit less likely to send children running away screaming with his odor: rather, they'd scrunch their tiny noses and complain about it, which Hog considered an improvement.

    He picked the Pip-Boy up on his way to the closet and tossed it on the cot after a cursory glance at the screen confirmed he still had time, though not too much, and that no, nobody had bothered to contact him since his shift ended. Which was fine, he repeated to himself as he examined his collection of brown and blue jumpsuits, all in varying states of dirty and threadbare. Perfectly fine.

    Hogarth slipped out of his night tee and sent it to keep company to the Pip-Boy, then donned his workout attire: a once white shirt, now pink and black with persistent sweat and soot marks, and too large pre-war slacks that had gone colorless with too many washes at the hands of dear, old lady Palmer. The hand-wraps were next and Hog huffed as a few more threads came loose when he tugged them snugly against his balled fists. He took another mental note to look for replacements in the old sectors, just as soon as he snatched another air pump, a couple of light bulbs for when the current ones inevitably popped, another ball of twine for patch-up works...

    'And a spring for the BB gun. Ah, good luck with that. Not that I have anywhere left to practice, but still.'

    Hogarth cast one last, longing look at the battered toy disassembled on his workstation – nothing more than four sawed legs and a slab of metal welded together in the middle of the night - then he rolled his shoulders and squatted down to begin his morning routine.

    Sweat had broken on his forehead by the hundredth push-up. By the two hundredth sit-up and the customary stretching afterward, most of his joints had popped and the last vestiges of drowsiness perspired into the shirt like that of so many other mornings. Hogarth then flipped on his feet, craned his neck until a stubborn joint relented and grabbed a wrench from the workbench.

    'Fifteen minutes left' he checked on the Pip-Boy. 'It will cut it close, but what the hell.'

    It was one of those days, he reasoned with himself as he attacked one of the wall panels: one of those days when he couldn't give a shit about the restrictions placed on him and he just missed the old luxuries that had been taken away from him strong enough to risk discovery.

    'Note to self: I've been spending far too much time with those cockney Mr. Handys.'

    The last bolt dropped in his palm a minute and a half in, almost a personal record. Two minutes in and the panel slid back and sideways behind the adjacent one on a small rail system Hogarth had assembled when he created the cache in the wall. Two minutes and a half and the punching bag was hanging by the ceiling from a carefully concealed hook. Then the nineteen-year-old exhaled and the wet thuds of limbs against patched-up leather filled the room.

    Today's whim was the gym, as it was often wont to be. His legs itched to break loose and start running, but Hogarth knew he'd have to make do with smuggled boxing sessions and calisthenics for the foreseeable future. Probably until his father died or the Overseer, whoever first, which could still be many decades in the future unless booze and grinding teeth had anything to say about it.

    Hogarth's blows landed harder and faster from there on, straining and stretching the duct tape that was wrapped around most of the bag, but the increased tempo had the added bonus of clearing his head from unwanted thoughts. Five minutes later he stopped, chest heaving with effort and a fine sheen of sweat matting his skin. He could taste its sourness as droplets trailed down his face and he licked them away while he struggled to unhook the bag from the ceiling.

    Fourteen minutes from the beginning of his little rebellion and another back and fro between sink and closet, Hogarth clasped his tool belt around his waist and zipped up the upper half of his work jumpsuit over a clean - well, cleaner - undershirt. It clung comfortably to his damp chest after he washed most of the sweat away at the sink, but he knew that in all likelihood by the end of the day it'd be in prime condition to replace his workout tee.

    He really needed to smuggle his bag of dirty clothes to lady Palmer one of these nights. Maybe bring her a treat smuggled from the kitchen next time he went on a foraging run. She had a sweet tooth for Andy's plumcakes, like she had told him one time or fifty before.

    The Pip-Boy's weight on his wrist was a familiar comfort when he grabbed the door handle, but despite the spreading soreness of his muscles, Hogarth couldn't find it in himself to regret his exertions. Even if he knew he'd curse his mule-headedness a few hours into his shift. He always did, but then he always reiterated anyway. One of the reasons he was stuck where he was, he supposed.

    Hogarth's private abode was one of the first on the lowest level currently reclaimed by the Overseer's expansionistic policy. Four levels below the fusion reactor and two under the hydroponics bay and bioreactors, it would allow for the 'resettlement of worthy residents' and 'the accommodation of a new generation of families'.

    So far only Hogarth, that nutjob Beatrice and a couple of others enjoyed the new space: past all the bombastic wording and mating schedules that made half of the Overseer's announcements these days, it could all be summarized in two words: segregation and stairs. A lot of stairs and wonky doors to get anywhere remotely civil, which was probably the point the Overseer wanted to make for the worthy souls resettled down there: stay out of sight.

    Hogarth always found a smile in spiting the control freak.

    A lot of stairs also meant a lot of time to brood and a lot of people to interact with on the way to everywhere worthy of note; two activities whose results Hogarth didn't particularly like, but that his masochistic brain was nonetheless fond of experimenting in at every turn. Training himself to exhaustion usually helped in that department, but alas, that morning time was a sparse currency and he got only halfway to the clean-slate numbness that would carry him past the cafeteria and to the Maintenance Department.

    So when Tom Holden, the glorified dirt-shoveler, gave him the stink eye, Hogarth smiled back at him and reminded Mary, his wife and a waste burner, that the room down the corridor to his would soon be refitted for living and that Paul Hannon Jr's kid was due in only three months.

    He didn't take any real pleasure from Tom's face reddening into a passable impersonation of a tomato, but the image carried him up for three levels of metal corridors polished to a shine and past chatting throngs of residents. Most edged away from him as if he carried a pathogen, but otherwise ignored his existence as they waited in line for the elevators or climbed the stairs at the leisurely pace only people off-shift could pull off.

    Then karma decided to even things up with a vengeance and punish him for his flippancy.

    "Hogarth."

    'Oh for the love of fuck! Of all the fucking days for you to leave your hole, of all the goddamned times to show your face to the rest of the world, of all the thrice-cursed fuckers you can meet -'

    "James."

    James Mitchell looked as disheveled as the product of his loins, but without the excuse of chronic lack of showers and the general reduction of comforts that befell a social pariah. James' face was waxy and thinner, etched with deeper lines than the last time Hogarth had seen him... four months before, when he bodily carried Stanley to the Clinic after the old man refused to have his cough checked one too many times? That sounded about right.

    The lab coat fell like a shroud from the older man's shoulders, the clothes underneath crumpled and stained with all the colors of the cafeteria menu. Hogarth, never one to refuse a challenge explicit or not, finally met his father's eyes and found them bloodshot and adorned by dark bruises where the man pressed too long and too close to the lenses of a microscope.

    "You seem well."

    "I am. You don't care. Are we done?"

    Old disappointment colored James' pale cheeks: disappointment at Hogarth's choices in life and career, at his role models and at his current predicament. Hogarth tightened his jaw in preparation for another spat, but then the third attendee to the impromptu family reunion made his opinion known.

    "Dr. Mitchell," Herman Gomez warned, his slightly mestizo features carefully blank under the plexiglass visor of a security guard's helmet. "You shouldn't talk to your son outside the allotted time. The Overseer will not be pleased."

    A shadow of a rueful chuckle curled James' lips, one Hogarth would have elsewhere mimicked at the mention of Alphonse Almodovar's possible displeasure, but the doctor nodded and eye contact was broken. Not by Hogarth, this time.

    "Now, we don't want that." James tapped the screen of his Pip-Boy and dull green light licked the underside of his face, a sharp contrast to the stark white clinical lights that bathed the corridor. "Your medical check-up is two-months overdue. I'll clear you a couple of hours next Friday, be at the Clinic at six in the morning."

    Hogarth almost arched an eyebrow at the early hour, then caught himself and scoffed, "As if the Overseer would approve something like that."

    Another rueful chuckle escaped James, but he didn't look up from the screen. "He will. Herman, after you."

    Doctor and Agent walked past him and further down the corridor, heading towards the cafeteria. Or better, the Overseer's office and from there, hopefully, the waste disposal chute. Agent Gomez cast a glance over his shoulder after a few steps, a pitying expression where only months before anger and shame used to war with self-restraint and discipline. Hogarth put up the same unapologetic facade he had for the past two years and once more nothing more than a mutual, baseline sense of betrayal passed between disavowed teacher and former pupil.

    Only when they disappeared around a bend of the corridor did Hogarth the iron vice around the bar of soap in his pant pocket. A quick glance at his Pip-Boy revealed that the motion-tracker had picked up James' signature, but he had been too ensorcelled with the fresh image of Tom Holden's sputtering face to notice and he'd paid the price for it. That was why he hated the brooding and everything that wouldn't otherwise come after a thorough morning workout. Something else to heap at the Overseer's feet.

    He spent the next two minutes in the closest privy, painfully aware of the delay he was building up and the complaints of his belly. He forced himself to focus on the latter and not on unwanted relatives as he waited in line at the cafeteria behind the class of six and seven-years-old an overtaxed and snappy Mr. Brotch would have to cater and teach to for the next ten years or so, until they were assigned a job and a partner to produce three children with. All for the security and prosperity of Alphonse Almodovar's well-oiled machine.

    Being the social pariah of Vault 101 meant that Hogarth was excluded from such mechanisms at the very least while Almodovar remained smugly in power. It also translated in the previous day's scraps as his gourmand choice of food and the denial of basic comforts like a place to sit at and eat in the cafeteria, but Hogarth took it in stride and looked on the bright side of life as he munched his sandwich of mystery meat on the way to MaintDep. For once, he'd maybe have enough time to catch a shower and put that soap to good use before the shift started and Floyd found any chance to unload his frustration with life on his shoulders.

    Feeling the cumulative contempt and fear of the four pairs of eyes - well, three-and-a-half counting Butch's disability - that belonged to the former Tunnel Snakes boring into his back for only the brief time the children needed to start complaining about 'Sooty's smell' was definitely another bonus.

    Especially when his best friend since forever, also the prized daughter of the origin of all his woes, and his crush since just as long sat at their table every day and would for the rest of their lives.

    Vault 101 never disappointed. It was shaping up to be a memorable shitty day in a year of shitty days. But then again, the breakfast bell had only just rung. Hogarth was looking forward to the rest of the day.
     
  5. Alexeij

    Alexeij Operation Triple Trolling

    May 29, 2018
    The Thin Line) Buried II

    In Vault 101 there were those who thrived under the Overseer's caring hand and then those who didn't. Unlike the Old World, however, Vault 101 vaunted a pragmatic approach to discrimination based on the contribution every individual citizen could bring to the community, at the best of his and her ability. The Vault nurtured and educated his children, generation after generation, but the relationship ought to be symbiotic. For prosperity and security.

    Hogarth saw the facts behind the PR bullshit while still young and naive: either you or your family had enough skill to be useful, or a tumble down the social ladder was behind the corner. After all, a community couldn't survive for centuries by relying on slackers and half-assed measures, right?

    It was a pragmatic philosophy that Hogarth had found quite comfortable and suitable even as a child. Which later told him there was something definitely wrong with his brain, but like every good child he put the responsibility at his Father's feet: what other outcome was to be expected when the only figure of reference to his young and impressionable mind showed genuine interest in him only when Hogarth behaved beyond his years and tried to get involved in his father's work? Sure, he was young and a brat, mostly a hindrance, but at least at those times the Vault Doctor was still his father and not involved in a sordid affair with a bourbon bottle.

    Maybe it appealed to him because he was kind of good at his tasks and homework, unlike most of thw bullies and the kids who treated him like shit because it was easy and safe to follow the self-elected alphas and the popular kids. After all, who wouldn't love to poke the kid with the weird name and the short temper until he lashed out and was taken down a peg? Hilarious.

    Only years later, after Agent Gomez took him under his wing to teach him some 'mental discipline' and stuff when his tenth birthday party turned into a mess, Hogarth realized how broken that philosophy was. Or rather, the principle was good and sound. The applications, however, sucked.

    Merit and hard work got you far in Vault 101, but only so far. One only needed to take a look at the Overseer Election Reviews, available to anyone with a Pip-Boy and access to the public library, which was really everyone above the age of ten: for two hundred years, the Overseers always hailed from the Big Families. Mack, Armstrong, Almodovar, Hannon and Kendalls: the names were there for anyone to peruse.

    The only exception had been the Overseer before Alphonse Almodovar, one Adam Leninger, but apparently both he and his family were among the many victims of the epidemic that claimed the lives of half the Vault's population some five years before Hogarth's birth. Jonas' parents had died then too and James had told Hogarth when he was still very little not to ask the man about it. Not to ask about it to anyone, really.

    Mum apparently died of related causes to, a resistant chronic infection that quickly degenerated during her pregnancy. She too was taboo.

    "Leave the dead to rest and the living to their grief."

    Whatever. The waste burners of the time, those still alive anyway, must have had their hands full for quite a while. Or worked very fast.

    If didn't end there, the hypocrisy of Vault 101 pragmatism. Funny enough, the more Mr. Brotch tried to follow the book and instill the values promoted by Almodovar into the young minds under his care, the more the cracks became evident. Maybe the GOAT and the whole concept of standardized attitudinal testing was really flawed, as his father sometimes rambled in the precocious phases of alcoholic stupor. Why have a jaded idealist try and teach the new generations the exact opposite otherwise?

    Anyway, the Overseer's was an elected position and while the office lasted 'until unfit for duty or otherwise indisposed', there were instances where the almighty ruler had been removed ahead of his time. Again, the Big Families played the lion in the henhouse. And so it was that, to gather but above all maintain support it was the norm for a man of power to share the connected privileges of that power with his closer supporters.

    It couldn't be anything too blatant, because the Vault still housed hundreds of people who had to believe the system they had been taught worked as a flawless machine, but if one looked just between the folds, it wasn't easy to miss the tampering here and the shoves there.

    The comfier apartments, assigned to the Families for so long that when the talks for relocation piped up among the working class every once in a while, few dared to issue a challenge for the lofts in the Atrium. The better jobs too, though there the favoritism needed to be less pronounced and one had to work before he could receive the proverbial shove.

    And so Paul Hannon Jr, firstborn of the Head of Security and Right Hand of the Overseer, wouldn't be aspiring for anything more than a Kevlar vest and a plexiglas visor to hide his missing teeth behind, but sure enough he would get an apartment of his own at the expenses of the still childless - and thus useless - Holdens when Christine Kendall popped the first mewling abomination.

    Stevie Mack, wounded in his dignity but still brutal and cunning and otherwise lacking in the brains department, 'suffered' a similar fate despite being the first spawn of that dynasty. Wally Mack instead, by being among the top of his - and Hogarth's - class and shrewd of mind, was comfortably seated in a plush deputy-overseer position at the Food & Sustainment Department. Mostly seated, since he required a cane to move around his bad leg these days, but it wasn't unrealistic for him to aim at the highest chair once Almodovar passed. His family's support and his marriage to Amata surely gave him enough ilk to pursue his ambitions.

    Hogarth was sixteen when he was told that he would never have a family. Not because he was less skilled or capable: half the Departments in the Vault had wanted him to extend his apprenticeship, and most of the others didn't because they licked ass so hard their tongue got periodically glued.

    His exclusion was only due to his father, the Vault's only accomplished physician and all-around angsty genius, being in the Overseer's bad books.

    Truth be told, at the time he didn't care over much about it: how could he when his crush and the girl he wanted to be with, Susie Mack, would reproduce with that pig Butch DeLoria, their union bestowed the highest and only seal of approval? What kind of name was Butch anyway? The match also clashed with his model of the Big Families and their power plays: what advantage would Butch, the talentless son of a drunkard from the Third Level, bring to the fold?

    It didn't matter that Hogarth knew Susie was smitten with Butch since they were toddlers: the useless prick had even made an habit of taunting him from the moment he had known of Hogarth's affections. It didn't matter that James had a fondness for alcohol too, and they both lived on the Third Level as well: he was the doctor, he was useful. Butch's mom worked as a janitor in a Vault with automated cleaning systems.

    All that mattered was that the Overseer's decision wasn't fair or coherent. Pragmatism and population growth charts suddenly took the back seat to a teenager's righteous indignation. It wasn't fair to him, and he wouldn't accept it.

    And that, at the end of it all, was the first discriminant in Vault 101. Those who accepted the rules and made do even when it stung, they lead somehow comfortable lives. The idealists or those selfish enough to refute their allotted piece of the world... well, they sucked, and would forever suck. But they did stand up for what they believed was right and proper. That ought to count for something that wasn't a shitty existence.

    Usefulness still held a solid second position in the list and thinking back on it, Hogarth begrudgingly realized that Butch and Susie's match did indeed follow the system, in a perversely coherent way. It was the act of a future leader tying a useful follower to his cause with something more durable than flattery and condescension. GOAT or no GOAT, Hogarth wouldn't blink once if Butch was suddenly assigned to Security once and if Wally Mack rested his ass on the Overseer's plush chair or anywhere near - nearer - to it.

    At the time, Hogarth had taken great satisfaction in this realization, that for how bad things looked, they still followed that comprehensible layout. What was still lacking was the sense of compensation and rightful retribution of the wrongs he suffered. Sure, he understood the system, but what good had it ever done to him?

    James snorted when he heard his idea, but James was used to remain untouched due to his genius and everything that wrought and it was a behavior that had rubbed off on Hogarth more than he realized at the time. He was good, he had great potential, he was courted by half the Vault's departments without being born with his ass landed in the Atrium. What could they do to him?

    A whole lot of things, it turned out. But like every self-appointed revolutionary genius in the history of forever, Hogarth dug his grave and carved his tombstone with his own two hands. And damn if he wasn't proud of it.

    But during those ten minutes on the podium addressing the rest of the Vault, he had been above all of them.

    Above Almodovar, who rectified and red-lined the graduation theses belonging to over-achieving students for improper and subversive content after Mr. Broch selected the best and worthy.

    Above Wally Mack with, his pedantic, calculated speech and his boisterous, shoulder-clapping father Allen Mack and his stupid baseball hat.

    Above Butch DeLoria in the second row, the over-compensating prick, always on Mack's heels but never quite at his level.

    And above his father too, with his utter disregard for the educational system and the disapproving, resentful look that grew more and more evident with each shared meal.

    Almodovar's expression of surprise and affronted shock when Hogarth fished out the true thesis from his Vault Suit and discarded the load of sycophant bullshit he had delivered to ensure himself a place on the podium was simply priceless. The following ten minutes of picking apart the entire Vault system by the seams in carefully timed sentences were worth of Cicero's highest praise. At the end of it, in the hushed silence that followed, Hog felt like a modern Prometheus who had delivered the fire to mankind.

    Butch laughed. Because Butch always laughed and mocked when he was in over his head. Laughed and puffed his chest and swung his fists. Hogarth half-expected the reaction, if only to see his nemesis cover himself in ridicule in front of the entire Vault. In front of the entire World.

    Then Wally Mack laughed. Then Freddy Gomez and Paul Hannon Jr and Christine Kendall and Allen Mack and Agent Wolf and soon everyone was laughing or chuckling at his expense. Even Susie laughed. The few that didn't - Jonas, Stanley, Herman Gomez - they looked at him with pity and sympathy from the sidelines, but it hardly mattered when hundreds of people, when the entire World was laughing at his expense.

    Hogarth remembered Almodovar's condescending smirk as he encouraged an Amata close to tears onto the podium and thanked him for his' enlightening exposition'.

    The following morning, Hogarth had walked to the classroom and the GOAT in a sleepless haze. His mind was unable to process what had just happened when really, in hindsight the reasons and motivations where there all along. He had explained them for the rest of the world to hear, and then he had been unable to accept when the social model he had carefully put together proved to be exactly spot on.

    The Big Families, acceptance and refusal, privilege the hypocrisy of it all: what other reaction than ridicule could you expect when you stated the utter obvious with the attitude of one who'd just discovered the true meaning of life itself?

    The day of the GOAT, his concept of invincibility-by-genius was given the last push when Mr. Brotch announced, not without a small amount of melancholic sympathy, that his test landed him in the Maintenance Department to repair busted robots, reprogram wonky Pip Boys and work on refitting the Vault for the rest of his life.

    James wasn't happy.

    Then the Tunnel Snakes had the brilliant idea to organize him a graduation celebration in the cafeteria, complete with gifts. The rest, as they say, was history.

    0 * TTL * 0​

    In the past two years or so, Hogarth had grown to appreciate some aspects of his work at MaintDep. For one, what he did was actually useful and the part of Hogarth who still kind of respected James for his work despite the man's attitude latched onto that consolation.

    That the fruits of his works were reaped by the people who first mocked him and then treated him like some sort of leprous didn't sit well with him, but then again that would remain a constant everywhere else in Vault 101 with things as they were. Contrary to say, being an hairdresser, MaintDep had other added bonuses.

    His co-workers weren't one, needless to say. The best treated him with dismissive professionalism: the rest ranged from indifference to active undermining and emotional punching-ballism. Then again, that sort of behavior had been institutionalized as the new blue two years before, so people like Floyd stood out from the crowd only because work forced him to interact more with the guy.

    And interaction was the mother of opportunity.

    Beside them and the obnoxious British Mr. Handys with their witty, irking personality matrixes - which Hogarth swore he would one day pick apart and turn into toasters - the rest wasn't so bad. The skills he developed became quite useful from day one to restore his new loft in the bowels of the Vault to at least a livable condition. It also gave him access to the old, empty levels during the maintenance runs, and that place was an endless treasure trove for someone who was supposed to subsist largely on the charity of others, or lack thereof.

    Morevoer his boss, Stanley, had developed the habit to pair up with him on those runs. Whether out of sincere sympathy or simple need because nobody else would accept to, Hogarth didn't know, but Stanley Armstrong was quite the oddball in Vault 101, a kindred spirit of sort, so Hogarth was content with deluding himself of the former. The pariah and the oddball had quite a nice tune to his ears, but what would he know after almost twenty years of jazz and soft ambient music on a daily basis?

    Today was one such days when he raided the old levels with Stanley. It had been some time since they'd come this deep too. Floyd had even brightened his day by bumping his head into one of the consoles.

    Sadly, it was also apprenticeship month for the twelve-years-old.

    "All the doors on this level are sealed mechanically by the Overseer's decree," Stanley was explaining as Hogarth went through the lengthy procedure of unsealing. Stopping himself from snorting here and there was requiring quite a bit of focus. "Every time we have to access one, we have to file a request through our deputy overseer for approval. Based on the level and on the index of threat, sometimes an Agent comes with the MaintDep team to look out for Radroach nests."

    'Unless you ignore the door and go for the maintenance tunnels in the pavement, kids. A fair piece of advice: think twice before crawling for three floors in the middle of the night, dragging a punching bag chained to your ankle.'

    Monica Kendall and Francis Gorobitz were the twin images of bored, pre-pubertal attention, but Monica was also one of Stanley's many granddaughters and so she piped up in a pointless, dutiful question. "Why this room, granddaddy?"

    "Spare parts, mostly," Stanley said, turning to look at the screen of his Pip-Boy. "The eggheads at the Reactor Level busted half the lights in their offices, support and all. Now they are down to Pip-Boys." Hogarth could almost feel the enthusiasm perspiring from the kids and the prospect of unscrewing lamps from the ceiling.

    'If only they knew.'

    "Large ones like those aren't common and this time there was no jury-rigging a repair, so we need replacement parts. This was an administration office, so hopefully... hey Hog?"

    "Mmh what?"

    "Check your radar." The older man glanced meaningfully at the children. "Mine is picking up something. You think it's Floyd and Alberts on their own run?"

    Hogarth stopped, fingers away from the next switch in the circuit case. Floyd and Alberts where on life support duty today, they both knew that fully well. Wordlessly, he booted up his Pip-Boy from energy saving mode and brought up the radar application.

    They also both knew of the custom-and-not-necessarily-legal modifications Hogarth had applied to his Pip-Boy. Stanley had been a big hand in making some of them workable options, what with far more years of expertise in electronics, and one of those was a more accurate and wider-range radar than the standard fare, complete with a rudimental biometric-signature reader.

    It was mightily useful in avoiding undesirables like James and the Snakes, when he remembered to listen to the warning ping. It also helped quite a lot in going undetected during his nightly supply runs in an out of the older levels.

    'What... what the hell are those?'

    "Stan, take the kids upstairs. Fast!" Whatever the signals belonged to, they were bigger than radroaches. Bigger, faster and approaching from a sector that should be sealed off for all purposes and intents. "Send a distress call to Security too." His connection to the emergency system had been rescinded two years before among other things, and Hogarth hadn't seen the necessity to piggy-back on someone else's connection so far.

    "My brother says we must not listen to Sooty," Gorobitz squeaked back, addressing Stanley and pointedly avoiding Hogarth's glare. "That Sooty is stupid and will get us in trouble if we listen to him."

    "Shut up and move," Hogarth shot back. He picked up his toolbox and glanced down at his Pip-Boy. Sixty meters away. He shoved Gorobitz in the other direction not too gently and kept doing so when the boy protests outgrew words and he ground his feet. His shouts bounced off the walls as if he was being drawn and quartered on the spot.

    'Whatever chance we had of going unnoticed has puffed. Fan-fucking-tastic.'

    The corridor they were in had had partial illumination restored for the duration of their stay. The overhead lights were low and suffuse, casting their shadows in multiple directions like formless, oblong fingers grabbing at the bare, stained walls. For a few moments, the only sounds attacking the decade-long silence were those of boots hitting the metal panels and Gorobitz's protests as Hogarth gave up on the shoving and threw him over his shoulder.

    Then he heard them, whatever they were. The clicking of sharp legs on metal and the chattering of flickering mandibles was deafening in the narrow confines of the corridor, many times more so that the chirping similar sounds belonging to Radroaches. Hogarth didn't turn around, but he knew the creatures were bigger and were approaching faster than they could run. He saw the same realization on Stanley's pale, lightly lined face as he picked Monica up and broke into a full sprint despite his age and playful heart.

    The stairs were up ahead, not a dozen meters away. It didn't matter much though: Security rarely patrolled lower that the Fourth Level and in occasion of the scavenging run, security protocols required the access doors to the Sixth Level from below to be closed. The technicians had the codes, but it would take time for the unsealing. They'd never make it before the creatures caught up to them, not with two children and an old man in the fold.

    'Why? This area should be clean of critters.'

    Hogarth didn't know why he did what he did next. Gorobitz's brother was probably right and he was a stupid, stupid moron with lingering delusions of grandeur and revolution. By the time that reasonable theory crossed his mind, it was too late to turn back. Damn pride.

    He unceremoniously dropped the no-longer kicking Gorobitz and shoved him towards the stairs. "Stan, run!"

    Stanley probably insulted him back, cursing at his blockheadedness, but Hogarth had already turned towards the big critters chasing after them, and whatever the old man said washed over him. A girl screamed, or maybe it was a girlish scream from a boy. Whoever, Hogarth couldn't blame them.

    He felt like screaming along.

    Ants. Big, twisted lovechildren between a lovercraftian horror and Mackay's wet dream on wildlife and radiation. Matted carapaces of dirty chitin advanced on long, elbowed legs, hooked claws ticking and screeching against the metal paneling, Black eyes shone maliciously at the human.

    Hogarth goggled at the twin jagged jaws protruding from each of those heads and clicking, clicking faster and faster with every passing second and every meter covered between them and the prey. Him. Some dripped a blotchy, dark liquid that Hogarth's mind refused to believe was what it was.

    There weren't too many of them, his mind offered. And most of the 'not too many' were maybe as long as his arm and maybe half as wide, but the jaws were still as long as his index. Plenty of teeth to shred his ankles or crunch his neck like a straw.

    So it was with dawning that Hogarth's eyes fixed on the one at the back. The big one, Bigger. His mind failed him.

    'This is it. I'm going to die.'

    He didn't get any answer to that. The critters swarmed towards him and someone screamed. Definitely girlish, but it wasn't him. Screaming wasted breath: in a fight, your breath was your lifeline.

    Hogarth brought the toolbox down in an arc onto the first bug and the jawed head splattered with a crack and a squelch. Ant brains and ichor splattered on his pant legs and nausea assaulted him like a wave. He kicked the next and the makeshift metal club arched sideways. Exoskeleton shattered and muscle strained as another critter turned into a smear of mucus on the wall.

    White-hot pain shot up his leg as an ant tore into his calf. Stars danced in his vision then died as teeth tore at muscle and bone. He staggered, but mad certainty that falling translated into 'gruesomely buying the farm' kept him standing and sent his leg lashing out towards the wall. Another flash of pain, then relief as the jaws slacked and the broken halves of the bug rolled on the floor.

    Hogarth wobbled backwards against the wall, head swimming, darkness squeezing out his vision. He swung out and his arm shuddered on impact. The toolbox flew out of his hand, clattering away, and shaking fingers searched for the tool belt. Daily routine was the only thing that allowed him to find his targets on the first try. The bugs wouldn't have allowed for a retry.

    The screwdriver in his left found purchase into a chitin skull, right through one eye and out of the back. The resistance was comically lacking and Hogarth experienced the sudden urge to laugh.

    The stimpak's needle found the top of his shredded calf instead, clotting stimulants and nutrients shooting into the torn tissue. The syringe emptied, but the needle snapped inside. He didn't have the breath to curse, he barely had any to keep going. The ants kept coming.

    He pulled back the screwdriver, then jabbed it forward. A sudden weight pulled his left down as he limped back along the wall. Hogarth's eyes widened under a mess of sweaty, sticky brown hair: there was an ant dangling from his Pip-Boy, jaws working fruitlessly into the hard-ceramic cover. The bugs could jump!

    He smashed ant and Pip-Boy into the wall, flinching as assorted ant muck splashed onto his face, mouth and nose. Hogarth spluttered in reflex, only getting more of the stuff on his tongue, but gagging reflex was overruled by survival instinct kicking in overdrive as another jumped at him, aiming for his throat.

    Hogarth staggered back and brought up his left: once more, searching jaws only found hard ceramics and chitin met metal walls, but the rapid, heavy skittering of claws on the pavement drove any thought of triumph away. The cow-sized bug charged at him over its dead kin, a mass of vicious appendages and vengeful bug honor.

    This time, the mind-voice agreed.

    Hogarth ran.

    A leg only half functional, he actually limped away. He dragged the limb along, too terrified and morbidly fascinated to turn tail completely and stop staring. Bullies he could deal with. Vengeful guards redeeming a slight to the family? Easy-peasy. Even the small critters were doable.

    That rolling bulldozer of animal hate? For Christ's sake, he only had a screwdriver. What should he do, jump on its back and break its fucking neck?

    Again, the choice was taken from him. The stairs came up as unexpected as they always did to anyone running backwards in a near panic. Taken as he was with the bug, he didn't notice he had passed under the open door until the first step dug into his ankles and momentum pulled him on his back, the other steps biting into his spine.

    The screwdriver flew from his grasp and his breath went with it. Then the ant was upon him, squeezing past the door to end the chase.

    Unlike what he expected, it wasn't the jaws who got him first. It was the forelegs and the hooked claws at their end that raked him over. Panic and adrenaline brought sudden clarity to Hogarth's swimming vision and out of reflex his left hand, encased in the Pip-Boy glove, lashed out to stop the coming blow as if it was a punch.

    Somehow it did and the reinforced screen cracked against the tip on the attacking extremity. The force behind it jostled Hogarth and he rolled with it as if he was dodging a dropping kick from Gomez. The second claw bit into his back rather than his face and this time Hogarth screamed as blood flowed and flesh ripped, the sound echoing up the stairwell.

    Then he was past it, no longer between the bug's jaws and legs but propped against the wall and the steps, his back throbbing and spewing blood that stained the rusted metal. The bug tried and round back on him to finish the job, to eat him, but it had four other legs to control and a huge bulk to move around in the small doorway. It pushed and screeched as it tried to work the rest of its body past the entrance, flailing its head in confusion and frustration and snapping its jaws at Hogarth, not quite able to reach him.

    Maybe it was the blood loss going to his head. Maybe it was desperation or delusion or too many a Grognak comic. Maybe he didn't want to become ant shit, to the joy of the Vault. Hogarth didn't stop to ponder. He gathered his body under him, bit down on the pain and jumped.

    He landed on the ant's thorax with a grunt as one of the legs was caught under his weight and snapped, tearing his jumpsuit open; one of the broken halves progressed further, biting across his ribs and leaving behind a long, crimson line and eliciting a curse from Hogarth.

    The giant ant screeched and thrashed, its body collapsing onto the missing limb under the additional weight. Hogarth's feet hit the ground again and he pushed himself up once more. His vision throbbed with the pain lancing up his leg and back. He could feel his hands slipping from the chitin and himself out of consciousness.

    He swung his sane leg over the ant's carapace, then he bent forward and grabbed the two elbowing antennas protruding from the thrashing head. In his addled state he imagined the thing's multiple eyes rolling back to settle on him as he planted both feet deep into the back of its head and pulled.

    The ant screeched and Hogarth grunted, then hissed and finally joined the beast in a scream that was pain incarnated. From his back, where muscles were tearing and blood gushing out; from his leg, where the wound had never closed and now the stimpak provided only the euphoria keeping him going; from his right hand, crushing down and bleeding on apocalypse-hardened chitin that cracked, slinters wedging into his palms.

    For long moments, man and ant struggled for dominance in a battle of endurance and stubbornness. Then chitin broke under an iron vice and the giant ant buckled, sending Hogarth crashing against its back and then rocking forward again like a crazed yo-yo riding a wild bull. His head felt like an axe split it in two when the ant screeched again and then buckled on its missing and stuck legs again, claws raking and slipping over the bloody, smooth floor.

    Momentum carried him forward. Before Hogarth realized what he was doing, his battered body registered what he was holding in both hands and towards what he was being carried by the merciless laws of physics.

    The broken antennas carved into the ant's two major eyes like a hot knife through Cram and continued forward, past the exploding liquid orbs and straight into the bug's brain. Hogarth coughed violently as the ant twitched one last time, and then crumpled on the ground, where it remained still.

    Hogarth was barely conscious when the echo of steps boomed down the flights of stairs. The Security Team, guns out and fingers twitching, found him straddling the carcass of an ant the size of a cow, mumbling nonsense in his delirium. The last thing he managed to focus on was the flashlights underneath pistol muzzles, then even those winked out and Hogarth slipped into peaceful nothingness.
     
  6. Alexeij

    Alexeij Operation Triple Trolling

    May 29, 2018
    The Thin Line) Buried III

    James can feel the sea air on his face. Gunfire echoes in the distance and seagulls caw overhead.

    He knows he's dreaming.

    Then he turns around and recognizes where he is. The columns, the walkways. The whole building is half a ruin even when it is not the real thing: two decades in the Vault have stripped him of the wishful thinking and embellishment of his youth and crunched any vein of imagination. Only unadulterated memory and single-minded obsession remain.

    The price of Safety went beyond his physical Liberty, but he noticed too late.

    That single, lucid thought tells him it's worse than a dream, that he'll remember it all on waking up and that he definitely hasn't had enough to drink.

    He proceeds anyway: the faster he'll get through it, the quicker it'll be over. And yet his pace settles in a lackadaisical gait, where outside the dreamscape even the briefest walk outside meant risking being shot at. His eyes take their time to roam over the empty corridors and the silent halls. Steps echo where jury-rigged machinery beeped and broke down routinely; dust and waste have covered the footprints of fervent minds blossoming with ideas, of duty and drive and hope.

    In the Rotunda, the heart has stopped beating, but if James focuses, or maybe it's the dream's own will speaking, he can still hear it. Under his feet, the sweetest ambrosia pouring into his ears. Thomas Jefferson looks down at him, immortalized in stone and writing. Dead eyes accuse from their tomb of polluted water and abandoned resolution.

    "I know," James whispers, then glares up, a spark of the old flame dancing behind his eyes. "Hypocrite."

    He knows just then he's not alone.

    "You kept your promise, love," she says, and still, after so long, James heart aches with longing. Their time together was too brief. Ripped apart by a will not their own. By betrayal.

    "He had Safety. He still has. You've given your son a life he would have never enjoyed out here."

    "He wasn't worth this!" he snaps, but the hand waving around is tired with repetition. How many times has it played out, the same, pointless script? Why does he still bother? The answer is easy: to hear her voice one more time. "He wasn't worth all our work, all our sacrifices. All the lives lost so that more would prosper."

    "He wasn't worth us," she finishes his thoughts, and James nods numbly. Of all the people that populate his dreams, of all the projections greyed by years of misery, hers has never faded. Flickered, maybe, but the cinders always rekindled.

    Her hand rests on his shoulder, snakes under his coat, through his shirt. Her fingertips are scorching against his bare flesh and for a single, delirious moment the Rotunda wavers, a mirror of water disturbed by the ripples of precious memory, one of the feeble barriers still erected between him and the barrel of a gun.

    Thump-thump.

    The Rotunda shakes, and he with it.

    "She was selfish," she says.

    Thump-thump.

    It reverberates from his chest, up through her fingers, and the ceiling cracks, but no lances of sunlight penetrate.

    "She had no right."

    Thump-thump.

    Water pours down in gallons, raucous and shattering as if filling a new sea once the partition have crumbled away, or returning to replenish a drying bed.

    "She betrayed us all."

    James walks into the water and drinks from it until all he can breathe is its purity.

    0 * TTL * 0​

    The beeping came first, then the cold. Hard metal against his flattened cheek. His fingers began to tingle as he shifted his head from his arm, eyes still shut.

    The beeping, again. He should go see. Why was that so important?

    'Alphonse wanted something. About Hogarth and some… ants.'

    The curved outline of a computer blurred into clarity, the keys half covered by his own arm spread over them and across the desk. The metal desk he was sleeping on.

    'Passed out on," he corrected himself. "A scientist must be precise.'

    His mouth was stuffy, almost anesthetized as he tried to chow away the awful, familiar taste of lingering puke. The world, the small, constrictive world swam and spun around him tauntingly in rhythm with the buzzing between his ears. The hangover wouldn't rear its ugly head until later, and it wasn't like he had no experience working with ethanol giving him a little boost.

    'No reason to slack-off, Dr. J. Stop drinking so much, Dr. J. Is that a water chip you're stealing, Dr. J.?'

    James propped himself up awkwardly, leaning on one side only to stop when he felt the chair threatening to slip away from under him. He blinked, taking in the polished steel of the Clinic walls and a Ms. Nanny floating silently in and out of an operation room, mechanical arms picking and plucking at surgery tools covered in crusted blood.

    Green blood. Green blood belonging to ants. Animals from the Outside that almost killed Hogarth.

    He could almost feel the Ms. Nanny's three ocu-lenses narrow at him in judgment, but it was so easy to ignore he almost didn't even have to try anymore.

    He straightened up and sluggishly pulled at his coat where it got caught behind his leg, then shuffled to the drawn curtains around the operatory table. The beeping insisted, but he had to see. That it wasn't just some alcohol-induced hallucination. That there still existed a world outside, beyond the Vault's walls. That he hadn't just imagined the first thirty-two years of his life.

    That she wasn't just a product of his failing mind.

    There was one of the drones on the slab of metal. The pits in its torso, arranged in orderly lines, revealed only formless mush underneath. The organs bobbed in jars filled with greenish biomed gel, giving the whole Clinic an impression of evil mastermind's lair. A complete array, though the brain he had to remove in loco in the Old Levels, from the only carcass whose head hadn't been damaged beyond salvage.

    'Gomez always taught him well. Too well for his own good.'

    James reached out, fingertips brushing the sleek exoskeleton. The chitin had been washed of the dirt and blood caking it while still in the Old Levels, by order of Alphonse. He didn't want anyone to come in contact with potential biohazards, so much that only one had been carried to the Clinic for the exams, and both the halls and the carriers had or were undergoing a complete rad scrub.

    He'd be treated with one of his own, and so would Jonas. Hogarth? Probably, at least to avoid contagions in the general population. Any bacteria or pathogen that could survive in the Wasteland would prove dangerous for the molerats of Vault 101. The other bodies had already been disposed of at the incinerator.

    Then the hole to the ant's nest would be sealed, and he would be still stuck underground. Just like another molerat.

    Beep-beep-beep.

    James padded to the bio-analyzer, watching dully as the black screen lit up with scrolling green text, filing out notions and numbers he already knew by heart.

    Flesh and blood were radioactive, unfit for consumption. Cellular markers were altered from the stored information on the pre-War species, but still recognizable. Tumorous growth within all major organs, but James knew first-hand none of them would impair the things from ripping off a wastelander's leg at a moment's notice.

    Hogarth had been quite lucky.

    The results kept scrolling until James switched the terminal to low-power mode. He swiveled lightly on the stool he'd perched himself upon, eliciting soft creaks from the seat.

    The familiar pang of disappointment that accompanied every thought of Catherine's son had been dulled recently – for how long, he didn't know. Days and weeks tended to blur together. Yet now, it burned brightly, making James' fingers itch for the bottle.

    He swiveled around and rose gingerly to his feet, only to witness the Ms. Nanny grab the half-filled bottle on his desk by the neck and pour it down the sink. James' face scrunched into a scowl.

    "Unit #16, enter hibernation," James hissed. "Authorization: Dr. James Mitchell, ID 0002… 90A6," he finished after a pause to push down the bile.

    The can of bolts didn't stop. One of its ocu-lenses whirred on him while she slotted the empty bottle into her storage unit for recycling at the earliest convenience.

    James had half a mind to process the robot for recycling.

    The door to the patients' ward hissed open before he could translate intent into action. Jonas was reading off a clipboard as he walked in, spectacles heavy on his nose. Seemingly satisfied, he scribbled something at the bottom and only then noticed James staring, or rather glaring at him.

    "You overrode my authorization?" he asked, pointing at the robot. Jonas' lips pressed together, then he shook his head.

    "I didn't. Chief Hannon did." For a few long moments, the only sound was that of the Ms. Nanny busying itself around the dissected ant, then Jonas spoke.

    "Dr. J., Hogarth is on a fever. I had to give him some Buffout for the time being and I extracted the broken needle, but he needs surgery remove the piece of… jaw, I guess, stuck into his tibia."

    James shook his head. "Even if we put him on the table, not even Super Stimpacks aren't enough for bone regeneration. But Alphonse will never concede on the Auto-Doc."

    Jonas took a couple of steps forward, surprising James. He had met his mother Anne once before, when he still lived up top: a bold, blunt woman. She was the leader of Overseer Leninger's scouts, no matter how much Almodovar changed the history books and imposed silence to fulfill his little fantasies.

    From the first day he was saddled with him as an assistant, James always thought she'd be ashamed of what a sycophant her only son turned out to be.

    So it was with surprise that James found himself grasping the clipboard – Hogarth's medical register, he realized – as Jonas shoved it into his chest.

    "Then go to the Overseer and make him relent. There's your son in there." Jonas' voice was a leashed rumble, dripping with clashing emotions. "Act like a father for once. It's bad enough what he has to go through every day, now you'd let him become a cripple too?"

    They held each other's gaze for another long moment, then Jonas sighed and made his way out of the room.

    "At least go and see him, if you can be bothered." Then the Clinic's main door hissed shut behind him and James caught a last glimpse of him passing by the Security guard on duty.

    "What are you looking at?" James barked at the Ms. Nanny. Its ocu-lenses narrowed and he thought he heard it huff, but it dutifully resumed its work and pushed the table outside of the operatory room and through to the hatch dropping directly into the incinerator for a quick disposal.

    James found himself alone in the too pristine, too orderly ambient. It and the Clinic as a whole had nothing of him: the robotic aides ensured the utter cleanliness of every surface, the sterilization of every tool and the perfect, mechanical arrangement of every element. The air smelled of disinfectant for the routine practices, but it lacked the unending motion and exciting air he'd breathed elsewhere during his training.

    Compared to the years of his education back West, the hardships of self-teaching and the dire conditions the Followers operated under most of the time, the whole set-up in Vault 101 never felt like a dream come true it should have. It was a sterile cage, almost surreal in its unchanging perfection and suffocating control. It refused him as he refused it.

    'If we had had this kind of resources at the Project… none of this would have happened.'

    Again, his throat itched for a drink, to cloud the recent lucid dream. At the same time, annoyance swelled into his chest, fueled by frustration and the alcohol still flowing in his body. The cursed tin can had to throw away his vodka, didn't it?

    James turned to the door leading into the patients' ward and took a couple of quick steps forward.

    The terminal chimed.

    James grunted, stopping himself from pushing the door commands. He brought up his Pip-Boy and frowned at the screen. Was the damn thing failing him too? He'd updated the software forwarding all notifications and communications from the terminal directly to his wrist only a month before.

    Turning awkwardly on his heel, James slumped at his desk and highlighted the message, narrowing his eyes when he failed to recognize the sender. Then the breath caught in his throat and he goggled for a moment, his head jerking around to see if anyone had just snuck up on him to look.

    'Someone is always looking in Vault 101.'

    It was the hardest thing he'd ever done to spend the next two minutes typing away, ignoring the message as it beckoned him, always at the corner of his eye. When he was finished, his hand lingered on the switch, eyes taking in the header and the first lines of the message to assure that no, he wasn't still in a dream. He was tempted to pinch himself though, a stronger temptation than he would have imagined.

    Then he deleted it and powered down the terminal.

    The Pip-Boy buzzed in acknowledgment of the forwarded message and James got up from his desk, picking up Hogarth's medical clipboard. Almodovar could remotely access every terminal in the Vault from the Overseer's console, but his Pip-Boy was fairly safe thanks to the software he'd appropriated from Hogarth's Pip-Boy six months before. The boy never realized he always had a back door in there, ever since his tenth birthday.

    The only good thing Almodovar could teach him in twenty years, after all, was paranoia.

    He couldn't well keep the trepidation out of his gait, not completely, as he passed into the ward. A small corridor was lined with half a dozen beds partitioned by curtains, plus an isolated room at the back. There remained the Vault's only remaining Auto-Doc, activated sparingly and only with Almodovar's authorization.

    Hogarth was on the third bed. Gone were the blood soaked rags of his jumpsuit, replaced by an hospital gown. A VI was plunged into his arm, the bag of blood half-empty; Jonas had left the Buffout on the nightstand, just out of reach of the patient's reach or flail.

    The wounded legs rested on a cushion, wrapped in medical gauze helping to keep the inflammation at bay. James had no idea on how to synthetize an antivenom against whatever toxin the ants secreted, but either the Ms. Nanny or Jonas would.

    James gave him a once over, then he fished out the clipboard and pretended to go over the data while confronting it on his Pip-Boy. For a moment, the longest moment in twenty years, he thought he'd imagined it all, that the alcohol was finally taking its toll to his sense.

    Then the message was there. James' eyes stopped on the header.

    Project Purity.

    He had never told anyone in the Vault about it. About his past, and his greatest failure. Almodovar only wanted a physician after the Exodus left the Clinic unmanned, and James was qualified for the job. No questions asked, only a bunch of exams and nineteen years of reciprocal disdain.

    This couldn't be a trap of his to justify his demotion from Vault Physician. James read, though the words were already engraved into his mind.

    To Doctor James Mitchell,

    My employer and I are great admirers of your work at the Jefferson Memorial. We'd wish to help you see your work to completion. To that end, a first step has already been taken to extract you, and whoever you would deem noteworthy, from Vault 101. Other associates are already on the move to clean the Memorial from the creatures squatting inside.

    With your cooperation, we can have you and a team of scientists transferred there in about ten days.

    No signature, but definitely someone from the outside. For a moment, James felt delirious, felt like guzzling down an entire bottle and break into laughter. It was almost too good to be true. Someone from the Outside, after all those years.

    He shook his head, as if to clear it. No, not the Outside. The Capital Wasteland.

    But when something seemed too good to be true, it usually was.

    What's in for you and your employer? He typed back. Who are you?

    He didn't have to wait for longer than a minute before a new message pinged on his Pip-Boy screen. A whole minute he spent fighting the urge to look over his shoulders as the ghost steps of Security paced on the other side of the door.

    Our talons reach far, Dr. Mitchell. We wants the same thing you do: a better future for this Wasteland, and to fulfill our ambitions. Sometimes, sacrifices must be made so that the status quo can be broken. You've sacrificed twenty years of your life already.

    You can call me Mr. Burke. I'm sure our partnership will be fruitful.

    0 = TTL = 0
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