According to Nick Valentine's sensors, the day was unnaturally hot for winter in the Commonwealth. He knew this, too, by the sweat on the back of Gale Anderson's t-shirt and the brown jacket she had slung over her shoulder. She walked ahead of him, head on a swivel to keep an eye on the surrounding countryside as they skirted Concord. They didn't like to travel through the abandoned town when they returned to Sanctuary, as it was a prime place for ambush.
Shielding her eyes against the bright glare of the sun, Gale looked up at the enormous white clouds that had been piling up around them all morning. "Looks like a storm's coming."
Nick kept watch on the scrubby, winter-brown land around them while Gale was distracted. "We should be there before it hits," he replied.
By the time they reached the settlement, the clouds had lowered and taken on a familiar yellowish-green tint. It was definitely a radiation storm, blowing in from the Glowing Sea in the southwest. But the citizens of Sanctuary kept working up to the last second—repairing turrets, raking in vegetable gardens, purifying water, cooking and cleaning. Every hand helped. Individuals only paused long enough to acknowledge the arrival of their occasionally-resident Vaultdweller and her synthetic companion with a nod or a wave. Survival came first, greetings second.
At the main house, Nick and Gale dropped their packs onto the communal dining room table. It creaked under the weight of scavenged and purchased supplies picked up on a run to the remnants of Boston. Freed of her burden, Gale straightened her back with a groan and Nick smirked at her. The weight had hardly fazed his pistons, but she had insisted they carry an equal amount, to be fair.
Catching his look, Gale said, "Oh, shut up."
Nick couldn't help but laugh, part humor and part relief. They had made it back alive.
"This jacket is trashed."
Nick and Gale looked up to find Jun Long standing on the other side of the table, holding Gale's jacket in one hand. Dust danced in the shaft of light coming in through a crack in the wall behind him, illuminating his scraggly black hair. He had a face like a sad basset hound's and he wore a formerly white t-shirt and jeans rolled at the cuffs. His fingers fiddled with four long rips in the back of the jacket.
Attempting to recall when Jun Long had entered the room made Nick uncomfortable. He either hadn't registered Jun's presence or the guy had managed to sneak up on them. Or maybe he hadn't quite, because Gale didn't seem surprised to see him there. She just said, "Sometimes that's the price you pay for doing something stupid. I'm lucky that was the only cost."
"You should let me patch it up," Jun said, as if Gale hadn't spoken.
Gale busied herself with unzipping the bags on the table. "Alright, Jun. Thanks."
Jun Long crept away down the hall just as the front door clattered open and a group of five or six kids burst in. Noisy and energetic, not at all as if they'd recently been going without as the town's supplies ran low. They clambered around the table and Gale started distributing food and items for them to take back to their families.
"Oh, and I've got something for you, Jaycee," Gale said.
Jaycee was an orphan of maybe ten or eleven years old. The other settlers shared the girl's care between them, but it was Gale who had somehow earned her affections. Whenever she and Nick were in town, Jaycee followed Gale everywhere between chores, chattering up a storm at the quiet Vaultdweller. Gale spent most of that time looking surprised at the girl's attention.
From her bag, Gale withdrew a miraculously unbattered teddy bear. Nick had mixed feelings about the thing because it had almost cost Gale her life to retrieve. Toy shopping these days was nothing like going down to the local department store. Still, he knew Jaycee would love it.
But when Gale looked up at the children, she frowned. "Hey, where's Jaycee?"
All of the kids usually went everywhere together; Jaycee not being with them was unusual. Murad, the spokesperson of the group, shrugged, saying, "Haven't seen her."
Peering around at the kids, Gale said, "Wait, have any of you seen her today?"
All of them shook their heads no.
Gale and Nick shared a look. He thought about saying, "It could be nothing." But the concern in Gale's dark eyes said she didn't think so, and Nick found he felt uneasy as well. They both tended to trust their instincts and something about this seemed wrong. So instead, he said, "Let's check with Garvey."
Out the side door, they found Preston Garvey, the settlement's leader in Gale's absence, under the former carport. 'Former' because cars didn't run anymore and thus no longer needed ports. The metal overhang had been converted into a communal workshop for repairing armor and weapons as well as for scrapping for spare parts. It smelled like oil and grease and for some reason, Nick liked it in here.
Preston Garvey was on the floor, hunched over a malfunctioning turret, with tools and parts spread neatly on the concrete around him. Sweat slicked his dark skin in the heat and his coat and hat were draped over a nearby bench. His laser musket lay within easy reach.
Gale crouched on her heels next to Garvey to peer into the machine where he was working with a screwdriver. The Minuteman looked up at the motion and his face relaxed when he saw her. "It's good to see you still in one piece," he said. He gave Nick a nod. "Both of you."
"You, too," Gale said, a faint smile touching the corners of her mouth. Nick watched to see if it would fully form, but it vanished like smoke. "Preston," she continued, "have you seen Jaycee around?"
Garvey paused and rested his arms on the turret, looking thoughtfully into the middle distance. "No, can't say that I have," he said after a moment. He turned his attentive gaze back to Gale. "Why?"
Getting to her feet, Gale scrubbed a hand through her spiky black hair. Nick imagined that he could see the wheels turning in her head. She didn't say anything, so he responded to Garvey himself.
"The kids haven't seen her today, either."
Sturges, Sanctuary's resident mechanic, stopped on the weedy sidewalk just outside on his way past. "Who are you looking for?" he called.
"Jaycee McGoffin," Preston called back.
Sturges walked a bit closer so they wouldn't have to shout, hands on hips. "Well now," he said. "Think I saw her talkin' to Simon Abney this mornin'."
Gale frowned. "Who?"
"New guy," said Garvey. To Sturges, he said, "Any idea where Simon is now?"
Thunder growled in the distance and Sturges looked up at the sky. "He's on patrol at the bridge."
"We didn't see anyone there when we came in," Nick said. Gale shook her head in agreement.
"Really?" Garvey said as he got to his feet. He wiped his hands off on a dirty dishrag and picked up his laser musket, cradling it against his side. "Let's check the guardhouse. Maybe he's hanging out in there."
The guardhouse was a wood and tin shack, constructed next to the half-collapsed bridge that led over the river toward Concord. When they opened the creaking metal door, the space inside was only occupied by an old office chair and a pile of cigarette butts from previous watches. There was no sign of Simon Abney anywhere nearby.
"He abandoned his post," Garvey growled. Standing next to him, Nick could hear him grinding his teeth. "He's putting all our lives in danger!"
Gale stepped out of the shack, a folded slip of paper between her fingers. In a low voice, she said, "It gets worse."
She handed the paper to Nick. Garvey read it with him over his shoulder. In jagged handwriting, it read, CONCORD SPEAKEASY, 100 CAPS EACH.
"No," Nick said, frowning. "You don't think…"
At the same time, Garvey said, "We have to go down there."
"Not you," Gale said, pointing at Garvey. "I'll check it out, but I need you to stay here in case Jaycee shows up. Get a search party going in the meantime."
"What? No, send Nick back—" Garvey started.
"Hey!" said Nick.
Gale shook her head. "These people hardly know Nick. They won't listen to him, but they'll listen to you."
She didn't say that they might not trust a synth anyway.
Preston Garvey regarded Gale, his alert eyes troubled. After a moment, he said, "You're sure you can handle this with just the two of you?"
"Sure." With an unconcerned air, Gale withdrew a pack of cigarettes from her back pocket and lit one up. She blew out smoke and it hung in the dead air like a ghost. "But if we're not back by dawn, come get us."
Thunder rumbled from the wall of yellow clouds on the verge of rolling over them. Preston Garvey nodded, turning and walking back into Sanctuary, shoulders back and head held high. The settlement appeared deserted as everyone hunkered down to weather the impending radiation storm. All was still and the air smelled like ozone, oozing thickly in the heat.
Gale handed Nick the cigarette and drew her 10 mm pistol, checking the clip and her supply of ammo. Nick just held it between the fingers of his metal hand, watching her. "Should you be going out there in this?"
With a double metallic click, Gale slapped the clip home and cocked the pistol. "What else can I do? If Jaycee's been kidnapped, I have to get her back." She looked up at Nick and her intense, dark eyes searched his. Somewhat disconnectedly, Nick found himself thinking that he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her truly smile.
Then Gale said the words he wanted to hear. "Are you coming with me?"
She didn't need to ask, but she always did. Nick nodded as he drew on the cigarette, as if it didn't matter to him as much as it did. "You know I'm with you," he said. He then offered Gale a brown pharmaceutical bottle and the contents rattled as she took it from him. It was filled with Rad-X, a drug designed to resist radiation poisoning. "But if you're gonna to do this," he said, "you'll need some of these."