Winter had descended on Sanctuary overnight.
Just the day before had been sticky hot, followed by a rad storm and then plain old rain. Sometime in the night, the rain had changed to snow, leaving the Commonwealth blanketed in a couple inches of white. A testament to the unstable nature of post-nuclear weather.
Outside the window of what Sanctuarians called the common house, heavy gray clouds banked low and sullen. It looked ready to snow again and Nick Valentine could feel the cold in his motorized joints. For a city boy like him, the prospect of getting trapped in small-settlement Sanctuary for the rest of the winter did not appeal.
Even at this pre-dawn hour, everyone else who slept in the many rooms of the common house had already left. Rain, sun, or snow, settlers had to work to survive. Nick, for his part, had been sitting on a couch, reading a dime novel whose latter half was missing. But now, he had it closed around his forefinger because he was listening to the sounds of puking coming from down the hall.
When it ended, footsteps pattering on tile heralded the arrival of Nick's friend, Gale Anderson. She appeared in the doorway to the living area and paused at the touch of seeping cold against her bare toes. Tall and lanky, she had spiky black hair that pointed in every direction and keen dark eyes. She looked sleep-tousled and comfortable in a mostly white t-shirt and khakis, with a patched blue blanket over her shoulders.
"Nick," Gale croaked. "I don't feel good." She padded over and plopped down on the couch next to him, curling up with her head on his shoulder and closing her eyes.
As a synthetic humanoid — an obvious one, with exposed machinery, a naked metal hand, and glowing yellow rings for eyes — Nick could count on one hand the number of times he had touched another person. Because he had been working the case of Gale's missing son, helping her comb the Commonwealth for him for the past several months now, he knew she was not a physically affectionate person. The warmth of her side against his side was both unexpected and nice.
What was neither expected nor nice at all was the alarming pale cast to Gale's brown skin and the ribbon of scarlet blood dripping from her nose.
"You have radiation sickness," Nick observed. Just the day before, Gale had charged headlong into the approaching rad storm on a rescue mission. He produced from his pocket a scrap of cloth that he kept for a handkerchief and used it to wipe the blood away. "You're not a synth, y'know. Gotta be more careful."
Gale frowned. "It was necessary."
"Sure. Of course." They'd had arguments about the reckless way she risked her life in the past. Nick didn't feel like having another one right now.
"The Rad-X should've been enough." She meant the pills developed for staving off doses of radiation. She'd at least taken that much of a precaution, at Nick's urging.
"You already know those things are rad resistant, not rad proof." Nick got up from the couch, easing Gale's head down onto the busted armrest. "I'll go get some Rad Away for you."
"No!" Gale's hand caught Nick's wrist, the one that still had its silicone covering. "We can't spare it."
Nick gifted her the full weight of an irritated glare. "You don't just get over radiation sickness like the flu," he growled. "Don't be an idiot."
Gale said nothing, but she released him. Nick drew the blanket up to her shoulders and left the handkerchief with her.
On his way out, he stopped by the kitchen. The interior was pre-war décor with all the post-apocalypse trimmings; kitschy blue space-age design, scattered over with a hurricane lantern for light, a jury-rigged potbelly stove, salvaged cooking pots and utensils, and a whole mess of cans and jars. At the counter in her blue jacket and house slippers, Mama Murphy, the community matriarch and seer, stood canning mutfruits, her old bones unable to take working outside in the cold anymore. The spicy scent of the cut fruit lingered in the air. A small fire in the stove kept the close room warm and the heat leaked out into the living room where Gale rested.
Murphy smiled when she saw Nick, her baby blue eyes lighting up. A young girl with an elfin face and wispy blond hair next to her did not, but she managed a wave. This was Jaycee, the girl Nick and Gale had saved from child traffickers just yesterday. Nick was surprised to see her working again already, even though she clearly wasn't back to her chatty, bouncy self. Then again, the Commonwealth wasn't exactly overrun with child therapists these days.
Nick waved back at Jaycee before clearing his throat. "Uh, Mama Murphy, would you mind—"
"I'll keep an eye on her, dear," Murphy said, voice dreamy. "You go on. But hurry." She shot a suspicious glance out the window over the defunct sink. "It feels like something big will be here soon."
"Probably just the snow," Nick said, ducking his head back out.
Mama Murphy only snorted at his skepticism.
By the time he reached the front door, Nick realized he had an extra shadow. Jaycee made a fierce face at him. "I'm coming too."
Nick smiled. "Welcome aboard."
He headed for a cellar beneath one of the original homes on the west side of the settlement. The building itself had been converted into Sanctuary's unofficial clinic, but all the medicine was kept locked up in the cellar for safe keeping. Nick poked his head in the front door and hollered for the doctor.
A scuffling came from the back, followed by a grumbling that grew louder as she approached. "Really, were ya born in a barn, yellin' and standing' around with the door open?" The older woman who stomped up had her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and a scowl on her face. Her expression cleared, however, upon sight of her visitor. "Oh, Nick."
Nick shrugged an apology. "Hi, Roz. I'd come in, but I wouldn't wanna get snow everywhere. Can you get me some Rad Away?" He dug some caps out of his trench coat pocket, preparing to count them out.
Doc Rozalynn held her hand up to forestall him. "None of that. Garvey says to give you anything you need," she said, but her eyes were on Jaycee. It seemed rescuing the girl, and by extension the rest of Sanctuary's children, had earned him and Gale some notoriety.
Nick dropped the caps back into his pocket with a metallic jingle. "Much obliged."
Around back, Rozalynn took just a few minutes in the cellar. She handed Nick a small pottle of pills, and just as he thanked her, the harsh, angry buzz of a laser musket shot split the frigid air.
Faint but clear, Preston Garvey's voice followed. "We're under attack!"