I started writing this story as an exploration of death, but it became something else that I cannot explain.
*Corpse description within. (I hear that's a thing that's gross.)
After his two-week stint locked up in Vault 114, Nick Valentine had determined to never see the inside of one of those damn things again. Yet here he was, a mere handful of days later, creeping through the dank bowels of Vault 111, following a crazy Vaultdweller in search of her dead husband.
It had started the day the trail leading to Kellogg—kidnapper of Gale Anderson's son, murderer of the boy's father—had gone cold. Nick and Gale set up camp that evening on the outskirts of the ruins of Boston, holing up in a burned out bakery. The location was terrible, affording almost no shelter should the weather turn bad, which was why there were no raiders or scavvers already there when Nick chose it. But he and Gale only needed it for the night, and he could see by her stumbling steps that she was done.
Nick hadn't known at the time just how done Gale was.
That night, Nick sat by their small fire behind the display counter, taking first watch while Gale slept under a blanket on the other side. So far, the night had been quiet and it left the synth plenty of time to think, turning over the details of the case in his mind, wondering if they had missed something in their search. Things didn't look too good right now, but he had some ideas for their next move to discuss with Gale in the morning. He thought he could turn this around with a few well-placed inquiries.
But long before dawn, Gale gasped and jerked upright, surprising the hell out of Nick.
All contemplation forgotten, Nick was instantly up in a half-crouch, revolver in hand, onboard systems screaming at him to find the source of the danger. He scanned the area as alerts went off behind his eyes, but he came up with no organic threats that he could detect. "Gale," he murmured, tone betraying none of this internal chaos. A raised voice could give their position away to nearby enemies. "Gale, what is it?"
Pressing shaking palms against her forehead, Gale took a shuddering breath and leaned forward. "He was coming for me," she whispered to the floor. "Oh god, I just left him in there."
It took a moment for Nick to realize what she meant: a nightmare. Gale had just hired Nick, Diamond City's only detective, to help her find her son, so he didn't know her well. But from what he had gathered from the details of the case, she'd crawled out of cold storage about a week ago—a relic of a pre-war era from a couple centuries past—and had spent all her time since then hunting for Shaun. Nick guessed that now, with no good leads to follow, no action to take, nothing tangible to occupy Gale's mind… it was time for the nightmares to catch up to her.
Nick made his way around the fire and crouched on his toes next to Gale, thinking he should comfort her somehow, pat her arm reassuringly, maybe. But he knew how most people objected to being touched by a robot, so he kept his hands to himself. "Hey," he said instead, voice soft. "It was just a dream. Who was coming for you? Kellogg?"
Gale shook her head. "No." She ran both hands through her short hair, fingers tugging at the spiky black strands. "It was Nate. I just left him in that Vault and I… I have to go back." She flung her blanket aside and got to her feet. "I have to bury him."
"Nate? Your husband?" Nick asked as he also straightened up. "You can't go right now; it's the middle of the night. There are dangerous critters running around out there in the dark."
But Gale didn't respond, or even look at him, as she rolled up her blanket and stuffed it into her bag. In seconds, she was packed up, the strap of her bag slung across her chest, and heading around the counter toward the collapsed front of the building.
"Gale," Nick tried again. "Hey!"
For a moment, the Vaultdweller stood in the opening, her lanky form silhouetted against a cluster of blue stars overhead. Then she stepped outside and disappeared, only the rattle of rubble underfoot marking her going.
A log popped in the fire as Nick Valentine stood next to it, arms crossed, staring at the place where Gale had vanished around the corner. He didn't know her, he told himself, had no obligation to watch her back. If Gale Anderson wanted to go get herself killed, that was not Nick's problem. The synth hadn't survived nearly two centuries in the wastes by doing stupid things, especially for people who hadn't asked him to.
But Gale had rescued him the one time in recent memory when he had been stupid. He hadn't asked for her help then, either. Maybe it was less out of the goodness of her heart and more because she'd needed his help, but the results were still the same.
"Shit," Nick hissed with vehemence. He kicked dirt over the fire's remaining embers, the flames extinguishing with a whuff. Then he grabbed his bag and followed Gale out into the darkness.
They wasted a frustrating amount of ammo that night, fighting off wildlife as they cut straight through wilderness, leaving the broken skyscrapers of Boston behind. The waste came from the number of animals they faced, which could have been avoided during daylight. Otherwise the Vaultdweller killed with efficiency, almost mechanically. She didn't turn on the flashlight of her Pip-Boy, nor did she speak a word. In Nick's night vision, her brows were drawn and a certain steeliness edged her eyes. Her flinty expression never changed, whether they were fighting molerats or bloatflies or just walking.
Nick wondered if Gale knew where she was going in the dark, but when he checked his internal compass, he found they were steadily bearing northwest.
Gale walked all night and most of the next day until the broken road they were following ended at a half-collapsed wooden bridge. Late afternoon sunlight slanted down, sparkling on the water's surface below. Aside from the chuckling water, all was quiet. Still, Nick slowed, detecting signs of organic life on the other side of the river. "Uh, Gale," he called. "There's something out there."
Walking in front of him, Gale just motioned with an uplifted hand for him to come on. Nick wasn't sure if he was relieved at her acknowledgement of his presence or further irritated. He'd begun to think she wasn't aware of what she was doing, that she had snapped completely, which might have been more forgivable than this apparent thoughtless determination.
As they crossed the bridge, their steps on the planks echoing in the empty countryside, Nick caught sight of motion next to a decorative stone wall on the other side. He had his pistol drawn and cocked in an instant, his reaction testament to his mistrust of Gale's assessment of this place. The movement turned out to be a kid leaving the shelter of the wall and racing off down the road toward a cluster of ramshackle houses in the distance. A lookout gone to inform of their approach.
On their way into what Nick assumed was a new settlement, he and Gale passed a blue wooden sign, faded and peeling from exposure, which read: SANCTUARY. It had a rising sun depicted above it and another word beneath, but time had worn most of that one away. Nick had never been here, neither in his scanned memories from before the war nor in his experience since then, but he'd lately been hearing about a new settlement called Sanctuary on the radio.
Ahead, a dark figure approaching them raised an arm in greeting. "Gale!" he called out, his voice thin with the distance. This must be the person the child had left to summon. When Nick had gotten a bit closer, he recognized the man's old yellow duster and pinned up cowboy hat as the uniform the Minutemen used to wear a long time ago.
However, when they got close, Gale didn't return the newcomer's greeting. His smile faded into confusion as she passed him without a word.
Following up behind her, Nick said, "Don't take it personal; she's not talking to anybody. Been like this since last night."
The fellow visibly started at the sound of Nick's voice, maybe not expecting conversation from Gale's mechanical shadow. He put out a hand in front of Nick to stop him and sized him up with a quick glance—crumpled fedora and patched tan trench coat, bare metal hand, gaping hole in his neck exposing some of his inner components, and glowing yellow rings for eyes. The guy couldn't possibly miss that Nick Valentine was a synthetic human. Nick braced himself for the inevitable prejudice that came with that.
"Hold up," the man said to him. "I'm Preston Garvey, leader of Sanctuary. I know Gale over there, but who are you?"
Irritated, Nick stopped in the middle of the road and took a second to look Preston Garvey up and down. Judging by the concern in the man's alert eyes, he was taking his duties as leader seriously, not just throwing his weight around. "Detective Nick Valentine," Nick said. "From Diamond City. I'm with Gale."
Garvey relaxed a bit and let his hand drop. "Oh. I've heard of you. Makes sense that she would find a detective." His brown eyes flicked toward Gale, who was rummaging through an old tool shed next to one of the dilapidated houses nearby. "But what's wrong with her?"
Nick's head reeled with how quickly Garvey had accepted him, a synth, and treated him like a person. But he kept that reaction on the inside. Aloud, he said, "I don't know, but I think it's personal. Whatever it is, we seem to be in a hurry. So if you'll excuse me."
Garvey nodded and stepped aside. "Right."
By this time, Gale had managed to dig up a metal shovel from the tool shed and she had it balanced over her shoulder. When Nick caught up to her, she was stepping off the main road onto a dirt trail, which wound over a picturesque wooden bridge and up the side of a rocky hill behind the settlement.
At the top of the hill, they left the shovel stuck upright in the dirt and rode an enormous round platform downward, deep underground. Squealing with age, the metal platform clanked and bounced, the hydraulics whining as they lowered it down a massive chute. The air grew chilly enough that Nick could just see Gale's breaths in faint white clouds. He hadn't quite thought that Gale meant to return to Vault 111 when he'd decided to follower her. Now that they were here, he couldn't seem to get his systems to settle—his coolant source shut off in response to the lower temperature, which was normal, but he could hear fans whirring faster and feel pressure valves tightening, which was not.
Gale suddenly spoke, her voice tired and scratchy from disuse. It echoed up the cylindrical shaft just as they reached the bottom. "Why did you come with me?"
When Nick slid his gaze in her direction, Gale was staring straight ahead, her drawn face in profile in the dim light. The question sounded important, almost like a challenge, one for which no flippant response would do. Now that she'd asked out loud, Nick wasn't certain of the answer, so he gave himself a moment to think about it. The platform came to a rest with a rumble and a wire mesh gate clanged and rattled as it started to rise. It only made it up about knee height, though, so Nick reached out and hauled the gate high enough that they could both duck underneath.
Sometimes it paid to have the strength of a robot.
Once on the other side, Nick paused. He said, "Because we haven't found your boy yet."
Gale pursed her lips and made a non-committal noise. Whether this meant she accepted his explanation, Nick couldn't tell. He decided not to pursue the matter for now.
They made their way up a staircase into the vault proper, feet clanging on the metal. It was as they stepped through an enormous gear-shaped door, however, that Gale turned on the catwalk and puked over the side, one hand on the rail, the other arm braced across her stomach. Since she hadn't eaten in almost twenty-four hours, only a thin, clear stream came up, splashing into a pool of water down below.
Nick was right behind her, hands hovering uncertainly. "Whoa, hey! What's all this?"
When Gale had finished heaving, she wiped a hand across her mouth. "This damn place," she whispered. "I hate it in here."
"Yeah, me too," said Nick. "Vaults creep me the hell out." In a rustle of cloth, he pulled off his trench coat and dropped it around Gale's shoulders. "Here, maybe this'll help."
Straightening up, Gale slipped her arms into the sleeves and tugged the front closed. "Nick," she said, finally looking right at him for the first time all day. "Why did you really come with me? You and I both know you didn't have to."
Nick stilled at the question. Gale, he kept forgetting, had a way of cutting straight to the heart of things, accepting no sideways answers. The reality was this: Nick Valentine wasn't sure what to make of Gale Anderson. New, quiet, unexplained. She kept herself very much to herself. So Nick wasn't familiar with her enough to understand what could drive her back into a vault that terrified her. A motivator that powerful caused him concern.
"I don't know," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I wasn't dishonest when I said I want to close your case. But I guess it's also because I was worried about you."
Gale raised her chin, her head cocked to the side a little. She didn't tell any ridiculous lies like I'm fine. Instead, she just said, "Yeah. Yeah, me too."
The truth was all the explanation necessary.
Vault 111 turned out to be a damned maze, made up of steaming pipes, chilly concrete, cold metal, twisting hallways, and sudden turns. Lights flickered on and off, water dripped constantly into half-frozen puddles in each tunnel, and every wall looked the same. Nick didn't bother to count the number of vault suit-clad skeletons they encountered, but after so many, he started to wish he had. At the first one, he couldn't help but give Gale a sidelong look, somewhere between inquisitive and judgmental.
Catching his expression, Gale said, "They were all dead when I woke up."
Eventually, they reached a room that featured a desk with an old terminal on it and another skeleton lying on the floor behind it. Gale stopped, frowning. "Uh, Nick," she said. "Maybe we should split up, cover more ground."
Nick shrugged. "Sure. Give a holler if you find it first."
Gale nodded and they each took a different exit.
Nick soon found himself in a room full of bunkbeds. It wasn't the one Gale sought, Nick knew, but he entered it anyway to strip off a couple of cold, leftover sheets, thinking they were probably going to need them when they discovered Nate's whereabouts. On a nearby dresser, he also turned up a blessed pack of cigarettes and lit one up, the scent of clove pushing back that of cold, damp air. As a synth, smoking didn't do anything for him, but the normalcy of his old habit from his human days comforted Nick in the heart of this creepy place.
The report of a gunshot echoed into the room and Nick was off and running before the echoes had died. Two more shots rang out. Nick's onboard sensors triangulated the source of the noise as coming from the doorway Gale had taken earlier. He skidded around corners, pistons hissing and feet pelting the slippery concrete. By the time he burst into a room filled with giant, bulky cryogenic pods, he had his revolver out and at the ready.
Fortunately, instead of the carnage he expected, Nick found Gale pacing back and forth in front of one streaked, gray pod toward the other end of the row. She had both hands buried in her hair again, but she also held her black 10 mm pistol. An enormous radroach lay dead at her feet in a pool of dark blood, its orange carapace pierced with several bullet holes, one of its antennae still twitching.
As Nick made his way into the room, Gale let out an animalistic whimper. "I left the door open," she said, still pacing. "Uuggh…"
Nick frowned as he slipped his revolver into the holster under his arm. When he stepped up next to Gale, he found the source of her distress: in the open pod were the remains of Nate Anderson.
Nate sat in the pod like a king on a frozen throne. The intense cold still jetting from the interior had preserved his corpse, but only somewhat. Despite the delayed decay process, his eyes were gone and his skin had shrunk in on itself, revealing his teeth behind dark, rotting lips. His face was almost translucent where the blood had left it and pooled in the lower half of his body. Some dark substance had leaked from his nose and the corner of his mouth, dribbling down his chin. A reddish-brown stain ran down his forehead from an empty hole near his hairline, marking where Kellogg had shot him in the struggle to take Shaun Anderson from his arms.
Bending at the waist to look closer, Nick found large nibble marks in Nate's neck. He glanced down at the radroach again, putting two and two together.
"I didn't close the door when I took his ring," Gale mumbled in a distant voice. Nick wasn't even sure she was talking to him. "And it was eating him. If I'd just closed the door…" She groaned again and sat down on the edge of the open pod facing Nate's. But just as quickly, her eyes widened and she leapt back up as if she'd been shocked. In her hurry, she stumbled and crashed into one of the other closed pods, which Nick could see contained yet another corpse.
This was the nightmare.
Nick reached out and caught Gale by her coat sleeve, arresting her motion as she started to reel away again. "Easy, easy, easy," he murmured, standing between her and Nate's corpse. "Just don't look. Just… here." He took the cigarette he'd had clamped between his lips and handed it to Gale, who accepted it in a daze. If only there was a Nuka Cola around to better take the edge off. This would have to do for now.
Gale slid to her knees and Nick followed, crouching in front of her. Emptiness filled Gale's dark eyes and she stared over his shoulder into the middle distance. Her lips moved, but almost no sound came out. Nick thought she might be saying I'm sorry over and over again.
"Listen," Nick said. "You're going into shock. Just focus on that smoke and you'll get through. Can you do that?"
At first Nick didn't think Gale was listening. But after several long moments, she raised the cigarette to her mouth, her entire body shaking. Then, to Nick's surprise, she handed it back to him, so he also drew on it. They stayed that way for several minutes, sharing the cigarette back and forth while she calmed down.
Eventually, Gale shifted into a more comfortable position, with her back against the pod and her knees drawn up. When her motion tugged at his metal hand, Nick realized he hadn't let go of her sleeve. He immediately released her, but couldn't move away yet. The source of her nightmare lurked on his other side still, and he wanted her to be prepared before she had to see Nate again.
"I dreamed his corpse was crawling out of the vault," said Gale, voice husky. "No legs, just dragging himself along with his hands." She flicked ash from the cigarette with her thumbnail, adding a little more pollution to this nearly sterile place. "That's what I was afraid of when he was off fighting in the Battle of Anchorage: that he'd get his legs blown off by a mine or a grenade. I dreamed about it then, too. Didn't stop until he came home."
Nick took the cigarette, which was now nearly down to the stub. "That's why you need to bury him?"
Gale didn't answer for a long, long time. As Nick watched, tears started to slip down her cheeks, one after the other. It was the weirdest way to cry he had ever seen—no sobs or redness or shaking shoulders. Just impassive tears gathering at the corners of her dark eyes and dripping off her chin onto her knees, the least expression of emotion possible. Judging by her clenched jaw, though, she was holding back a flood.
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Gale said in a gummy voice, "It's because he deserves to be buried."
What she didn't say was that she cared about her husband's fate, though Nick thought she meant so. It was much, much too big to put into words, a useless and impractical sentiment, the sort of thing that could get her killed in the wastes. Gale hadn't survived this long by being impractical.
Nick stubbed out the last bit of the cigarette on the floor next to him and drew one of the balled up sheets from his bag, offering a bit of it to Gale. When she had finished using it to dry her face, he said, "Close your eyes."
Gale's expression changed to one of extreme suspicion, eyes narrowed and lips pressed together.
"What?" said Nick. "I'm not going to kiss your or anything, jeez."
Closing one eye and then the other, Gale said, "That's a relief. Don't knife me, either."
Nick kind of wanted to laugh at that, but the solemnity of the situation made him hold it in. So instead, he caught up the corners of the sheet, stood, and twisted, dropping it lengthwise over Nate's face and upper body. Only his blue-clad legs still poked out from the knees down.
After he told Gale she could open her eyes again, Nick heard her let out a huge sigh at the sight. He had the other sheet laid out on the floor in front of the pod. "Let's get him outta here."
Together, they maneuvered Nate's corpse onto the sheet. Then they each took an end and used it to carry him out of Vault 111. As far as Nick could tell, the smell was god-awful. At times like this, he was okay with not having a stomach, unlike Gale, who had to pause every now and then to gag.
When they finally made it back to the surface, the warm summer breeze was a mercy, as was the noise. Nick hadn't realized how much he missed sound until the dead silent vault had robbed it. By this time, the sun had dropped low in the sky, hanging like a huge orange eye over a burning red horizon. They didn't have much time left to finish their task.
Nick probably could have taken care of the digging himself, but Gale insisted that she help. "I want to be a part of this," she said. "This one last thing. For Nate." She picked a spot near the edge of the rocky wall that shored up the side of the hill facing Sanctuary. It was tough going in the sunbaked dirt, but they managed it, taking turns with the shovel Gale had brought while the other stood watch.
It would make a good place for Nate to watch the world spin by.
In the gloom of twilight, Nick and Gale lowered Nate's body into the grave. As they stood at the edge of the hole, Gale looked like she might be about to speak, maybe give a eulogy or something.
But instead, she dug around in her pockets until she came up with two Old World coins, a penny and a nickel. Holding them up in front of Nick's face, she said, "One from me and one from you."
Nick thought he could guess which one represented him. But he stared at her in surprise, now feeling oddly included in an event of which he had before considered himself a mere observer.
Gale crouched to lay the coins over Nate's empty eye sockets. As she did, she whispered, "Goodnight, love."
After they had filled in Nate Anderson's grave, the synth and the Vaultdweller sat next to it in the dark, the cherry glow of another shared cigarette the only light between them. Down the hill below, a few of the settlement houses glowed from within. But they were islands in a sea of immense black, mere candle lights compared to the vault of stars blazing overhead.
"These things will kill you, y'know," said Nick as he passed the cigarette over to Gale. "I'd hate to be the one who got you addicted to them."
His companion made a pfft noise. "Today was not my first time smoking," said Gale. "Besides, I'm sure the Commonwealth will get me long before it's a problem."
Nick laughed a low and quiet laugh, because she was probably right, in a very morbid way. After a few more minutes of companionable quietude, he nodded back toward the vault. "Think we should bury the rest of them? Your neighbors?"
He listened as Gale blew out a thoughtful stream of clove-scented smoke. "Someday," she said at last. "But for now, let the vault be their tomb."