Another sunset over the Capital Wasteland, the orange and red rays of the sun painting the world a dull, warm color as the three wanderers trekked across the wastes. Their power armor reflected the beams of light on whatever shiny portions of their worn surfaces remained. The sand and small ponds of bubbling, radioactive waste all shown with the colors of the late evening; night would soon be upon the wastes.
South from Canterbury Commons and north of the D.C. Ruins, the wasteland is usually quiet. Save for the occasional group of raiders or super mutants, there are no settlements or camps. There's an abandoned Corvega factory, left to rot in the sun and sand, inhabited by giant ants and their queen, but the Wandering Pair and their travelling companion paid it no mind. With their Pip-Boys guiding them towards their destination, they walked through the ruined hills and blasted landscape until the former nation's capital city loomed before them. Lloyd looked to Amata and Cross and back at the console on his wrist to confirm that their destination was just within the limits of the city.
"Just about a block in," he confirmed, looking back at the collapsed buildings that seemed to bar their path, not offering any easy way into the city itself.
Amata walked up alongside him and surveyed the wreckage, trying to spy some way to get inside, as was Star Paladin Cross. The elder warrior looked slightly eastwards, noting something that caught her eye. "Look there," she pointed.
Jutting out from a large pile of rubble in front of a destroyed building was an open pipe, large enough for even the tall Lloyd to stand upright in. The pipe vanished into the earth and concrete, seeming to head into the ruins of the city. The three of them approached it, looking in and seeing only darkness.
Lloyd reached up and turned the light on his helmet on, as did the other two. The pipe was very old and rusty, but did go far into the ground.
"Might lead into the city," Amata said. "Could it connect to the sewers? Or maybe the metro tunnels?"
"It might," Lloyd agreed. "Either way, I think it's worth exploring."
With his assault rifle in hand, he led the way inside. Amata followed with her SMG and Cross with her super sledge. The tunnel eventually gave way to a larger room, resembling some of the metro maintenance tunnels that they had travelled through before. Pipes line the walls, occasionally broken up by small janitorial closets full of empty metal boxes and scattered papers.
Coming to a door, Lloyd found it not locked, but rusted shut. Looking back at the others, he took a moment to prepare before slamming his foot into it, forcing it open. With his weapon immediately up, he entered the hallway, finding it to be a large metro tunnel.
Amata and Cross walked up behind him as he brought his Pip-Boy up to check their whereabouts. "If we keep going down this way, we should find a way to the surface. Once on the street, there should be a way to Vault-Tec's headquarters."
"Lloyd," Amata said, drawing his attention. He followed the light of her helmet to a large hole in the tracks, large enough for a man to fit through. Approaching it cautiously, they peered inside. It may have once been a sewer tunnel of some kind, but the concrete walls had given way to natural stone and dirt. Puddles of assuredly foul-smelling muck covered the floor in addition to large amounts of glowing fungal vegetation.
The rough, uneven walls seemed to shine with a strange luster as their lights shown upon their surfaces. It was almost like they were coated with some kind of strange, clear slime. As they looked down into that large cavern, they noted some movement. A humanoid like form lumbered out of the shadows, into their line of view.
"Is that a man?" Lloyd asked, trying to look close.
"No," Cross said with a hint of grim recognition. "We should leave this place. It is their nest."
Before he could ask what she meant, the creature entered the light. From head to toe, it was covered in bluish-greenish scales, with large red plates around its neck. Its face, though human in shape, was long and angular, with thin lips and yellow eyes set above a flat, wide nose. Its webbed feet and hands complemented the large fins on its forearms and legs, making him resemble a strange fish-man.
The mirelurk king looked up upon them, squinting in the light of their helmets. Its thin lips curled back from its teeth and it let loose a horrible shriek, unexpectedly shrill for a being that looked like it did. Upon doing so, the walls and rocks of the cavern started to move.
Then, they realizes that those were not merely the walls of that lair, but its inhabitants as the mirelurks awoke, their shells resembling rough stone moving to reveal their true nature. The large crab-like monsters scuttled slowly to action, their claws grasping at the walls and allowing them to scale upwards, towards the cave mouth.
Lloyd's eyes widened and his grip tightened as he saw the veritable horde of mirelurks awaken at the call of their king. "We should leave," he agreed with Cross as the three of them took off running from the hole.
Another shriek from behind them echoed off the walls of the metro tunnel. They knew that the mirelurks, while naturally at home in the water, were capable of fairly swift movement on land and wouldn't be too long behind them, their crustacean claws eager to snap around flesh. Lloyd briefly pondered about their claws being can openers to their armor, finding the imagery almost humorous if he wasn't being chased by them at the time.
Turning a corner, the three discovered a dead end. The tunnel had long since collapsed, making advancing any further impossible. "Now what?" Lloyd wondered aloud. Cross turned to ready herself for the mirelurks.
Amata looked around for a way out. She couldn't see any around. Looking up, however, she found an alternative. Grabbing Lloyd's arm, she pointed up at a manhole cover.
"Perfect!" Lloyd said, nearly throwing her into a hug. Another cry from the mirelurks told them that they were nearly there and growing closer every second. Cross and Lloyd worked together to lift Amata upwards. Though her power armor was heavy, the enhanced strength their own armors gifted them made it possible. Lloyd grunted as they lifted, looking up to see Amata reach up to the ceiling.
Pushing upwards, she sighed in relief as it gave way. It was night outside now, so no light poured in from the opening. After moving the cover completely away, she pulled herself out of the hole and quickly took in her surroundings. Spying a piece of snapped cable wire, she rushed over to it and took it back with her to the hole, dropping one end in before rushing to tie the other end off on a very large chunk of rock.
Lloyd looked at the cable and put away his rifle before taking hold of it and hoisting himself up. With one arm over the other, he steadily made his way up to the hole where Amata was waiting to help pull him up.
Down below, Cross saw the first of the mirelurks approaching, its mandibles clicking in excitement and dripping with spittle. Raising her hammer up high, she brought it down upon the thing's head, caving its shell in and crushing its face. The corpse fell to the ground.
Moving back to the cable, she wrapped it around her arm and told them to pull her up. Grasping it firmly in their hands, they worked together, pulling at the same time to lessen the burden, slowly bringing their friend upwards.
A mirelurk reached out and grabbed hold of her foot with one of its claws, viciously snapping at her with the other. Raising her hammer with her one free hand, she swung down at the claw, breaking it off at the joint. The monster fell back, crying in pain as the Wandering Pair pulled her up to the top. Down below, a chorus of cries and snapping claws faded away as Cross was helped out by the two of them.
Grabbing the manhole cover, Lloyd placed it back over there hole, silencing the sounds of the mirelurks. They were in the city streets now, just as they had hoped. Looking around, he saw a street sign indicating that they were in Vernon Square.
"Vernon Square… haven't we been here before?" he asked his companion.
"Yes," Amata said with sudden realization. "We came here to find the Rangers, originally. Reilly told us that they were trapped on top of the Statesman Hotel, in Vernon Square."
"That's right," he replied, looking around. It was too dark to see much of the area. "To think that Vault-Tec's headquarters was around here the whole time…"
"Well, we didn't know we'd need to go there at the time," Amata reminded him.
Just as he was about to reply again, a shot rang out. The three immediately took cover and turned their helmet lights out. A few more shots and a very familiar series of taunts and chants reached their ears. Super mutants.
Now Lloyd remembered well; Vernon Square crawled with them. Arming himself, he looked out from behind a burnt-out car and saw three of them passing under a blinking street light, accompanied by two of the centaur mutant hounds. Returning fire on them and peppering the darkness with bullets, he looked for a way out of the situation.
Amata did the same with her SMG as the super mutants reacted to their fire, shooting back at them. Neither group could see each other very well. Taking a grenade off of her belt, she popped the pin and tossed it towards them. It didn't score any kills, but distracted them long enough for the three of them to regroup and retreat to a more defensible position behind a few pillars.
As Lloyd ducked behind it to reload, he paused when he heard his Pip-Boy go off. Looking at it, it relayed to him that they had arrived at their intended destination. Amata's Pip-Boy rang out as well with the beeping alert. Turning his helmet light back on, he realized he was staring at the front doors of Vault-Tec's headquarters. They were exactly where they needed to be!
"Inside!" Amata urged. Barreling through the doors, they found themselves in a lobby with some desks and chairs. One of the windows shattered inwards as a super mutant shot at the building.
Cross wasted no time and strode over to a desk, lifting it up and dropping it in front of the doors. Taking out her laser pistol, she told them, "Go. Find what you need to find. I will ensure that none of them enter this building."
They nodded and proceeded further into the building. Cross aimed out of the broken door and fired a few times, the bright red beams of her laser pistol briefly illuminating the area. Discharging the entire clip, she quickly reloaded and continued returning fire. She hoped that Lloyd and Amata would find the answers they needed quickly. The thing about super mutants, she knew well, is that there's always some more nearby.
Lloyd stopped Amata in her tracks. Just as she was about to ask why, she saw what he had seen.
The centerpiece of their lobby, hanging from the ceiling by steel cables, was a replication of the large vault door cog, an all-too familiar sight to them.
The number written on it was 101.
Lucy gingerly picked her way through the ruins, careful to avoid any treacherous terrain. She paused behind a pillar, catching her breath for a moment before listening carefully. She hadn't spent much time in the D.C. ruins, relative to some other people, but she knew enough that in order to reach the Brotherhood of Steel compound, she'd need to cross the Potomac. She had already taken one dip in the irradiated waters and wasn't about to do it again, so she needed to find a bridge.
The grip on her shotgun tightened as she calmed her heart rate. She had been moving constantly since getting on land, desperate to make good time to find her friends and save Christopher. Another pained memory of his capture flashed before her eyes and she quickly shook her head free of the images.
'No! I won't let that get to me. I'll save him. I have to.'
She looked at a nearby sign, bent and rusted, whose white lettering was still legible. It read "L'Enfant Plaza." She didn't recognize the name and hoped she was still going in the right direction. She had been following the river on her left, hoping that she'd come upon a bridge.
Turning from her cover, she took a few steps into the area and immediately froze when she heard the tell-tale sound of a landmine beeping to her right. Terror and panic swelled within her but did not cause her to delay her reaction in leaping to her left, over a small rocky barrier. The mine exploded with a noise that rocked her ears and sent a wave of heat and small debris washing over her. She groaned from the pain in her elbow from landing on it, noticing a small scrape that had drawn from blood.
Hoisting herself up, she sat with her back to the barrier that had prevented any shrapnel from reaching her and waited for the ringing in her ears to stop. Thin smoke from the blast shrouded the area, but as she turned her head, the smoke wasn't thick enough to mask the approach of a large, green foot.
Her eyes widened and she got to her hands and knees, crawling away from the blast site as quickly and quietly as she was able, hiding inside of a concrete tube. She curled up into a ball with her shotgun pointed outwards and tried to focus on making the ringing stop.
Her hearing slowly returned. Though her view was mostly blocked by rubble, she could make out at least five super mutant forms passing near her. Her heart was beating at a rapid pace as she tried to silence her breathing to stop her helmet's face shield from fogging up. Their voices, initially muddled and intelligible, slowly started making sense.
"I heard something… over here! A bang!" one of them said in a loud, pained tone.
"Me too… a beeper-boomer or a gernard…"
She heard one of them slap another. "Land-Mine, idiot! And Grey-Nade! Idiots…"
"Things no go boom… unless someone make them!" one of them pointed out. "Someone still here!"
"Can't have gone far… Find them! Bring them!"
The super mutants began spreading out, calling out taunts at her to come out. She was nearly shaking and she closed her eyes. 'Damn, damn, damn! How long will I be stuck in here?'
She didn't have many supplies for a considerable camping session. She had hoped to stay out of trouble during her trek to the Citadel. The shotgun was for when that failed, but she wasn't sure how well she'd fare in combat against five or maybe more super mutants.
Though she was still on edge, she had managed to calm her breathing and stop shaking. Maybe they wouldn't—
The opening of the concrete tube was suddenly filled with the visage of a large, green man with his lips peeled back to expose his yellowed teeth. "Found you!" he shouted.
Lucy immediately pulled the trigger on her shotgun, sending a shell's payload into the super mutant's face, tearing his jaw clean off in a shower of sudden gore. "Shit!" she shouted, scrambling out of the tube as the gurgling mutant fell back. She got up on her feet and started running wildly in one direction as shouts from other super mutants who had heard or seen her reached her ears.
Gunshots began ringing out, and a wall to her left was hit as she ran by it. She turned a corner into an alleyway, not sure of where she was anymore. Just as she was about to start moving again in a new direction, hoping to double-back and perhaps trick her pursuers, she felt a very large hand close around her leg and pull, easily unbalancing her.
She cried out in surprise as she was pulled down and lifted into the air, hanging upside-down from a super mutant's grasp. The vile creature seemed to smile and laugh as he lifted her up, proclaiming to his brethren that he had captured her.
Looking desperately for a way out, she aimed the barrel of the shotgun directly into its crotch and fired. He let her go, causing her to fall on her head, as he stumbled backwards, holding the bloody area and crying out in terrible pain. If she weren't running for her life, she'd have found the sight rather humorous. Thankfully uninjured due to her helmet, she grabbed her shotgun and tried running again.
However, her sudden disorientation from the fall caused her to not see a small rock in her way and she tripped, falling flat on the ground. She picked herself up, but not in time to escape the grip of a new super mutant who grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her up, turning her around so that another one could rip the shotgun out of her hands. She screamed and struggled and kicked out, planting her boot on a third's face. That one and a fourth took hold of her legs, rendering her truly helpless. One of them tore the security helmet she had gotten from Rivet City off.
"Hahaha, feisty!" one of them spat. She didn't stop struggling even as their grips grew tighter.
"You! Go get rope!" another shouted at one she couldn't see. Behind them, the one she had just neutered was still crying. "And shut him up!"
She saw a super mutant lift a large rock up over its head and bring it down on something with a wet, squishy noise. The crying stopped.
Lucy panicked as the super mutants all laughed. She didn't know what was about to happen—she'd heard from Lloyd that all of the captives super mutants had taken ended up becoming super mutants themselves, their identities erased and forever turned into hateful green monsters. She nearly cried at the thought of her quest ending this way, while Christopher rotted in some Enclave facility, waiting for her to find him.
She closed her eyes and tried to block out the sound of their laughter. What she heard instead was a gunshot and a sudden lack of pressure on her shoulders as the super mutant who had been holding her fell back with a hole in his head.
The two grabbing her legs dropped her, again hitting her head but this time without a helmet on. Her vision swam as bullets rang out around her. Rolling onto her back, she cracked an eyelid open in time to see one of her captors go down to a hail of gunfire from an assault rifle. Somewhere nearby, a grenade exploded.
Looking to her right, she saw her shotgun, still in fairly good condition. Reaching out for it, she picked it up and began crawling backwards, trying desperately to figure out what was happening around her. She backed into something living and tried pulling her upwards, but thinking it was a super mutant, she struggled out of his arms and whipped around with her weapon pointing at him. He, in turn, raised his weapon against her.
Her eyes widened as she took in the form of a man wearing the forest green armor of Reilly's Rangers, which she last saw worn by Lloyd and Amata. "Lower your weapon," he said threateningly, "we're on your side."
She did so, breathing a sigh of relief. "Thank you," she said, falling down to one knee. Her head was killing her from the bump she had received. The man knelt next to her.
"Are you injured? Shot?"
"Just bumped on the head," she replied. "Who are you?"
"Donovan, Reilly's Rangers. We're going to get you out of this."
Another ranger appeared next to him, a short woman with fiery red hair, holding an SMG in both hands. "Don! We need to move, time now!"
"Can you walk?" he asked. She nodded as she stood. The woman saw something move and let loose with her SMGs, gunning down the super mutant that had rounded the corner with a hail of 10mm fire.
Donovan guided Lucy back through the ruins, pausing briefly to put three controlled bullets into the head of another foe. Behind them, the gun-happy woman followed, turning to unleash another torrent of fire down upon an unlucky mutant before quickly catching up to them.
Donovan rounded a corner and Lucy followed, discovering a different woman in green combat armor. She held some kind of strange lunchbox in her hands, a homemade explosive that was primed and ready to be thrown. After the ranger behind them reached them, she threw it in the direction the three of them had come from and told them all to get down. The explosion rocked the wall of a nearby building, causing it to break apart and fall, covering their tracks.
Through the smoke and the dirt, Lucy could make out the moving forms of her saviors and followed them further into the ruins. For a few minutes they walked in silence, ever alert for more super mutants to pop up, before finding an open manhole cover in the street. Donovan provided cover for them as they quickly climbed into it before doing so himself, closing it up as he got inside.
The woman who had the bomb activated a small flashlight and shined it in Lucy's face, causing her to wince and squint. "Who are you?" she asked in a stern, authoritative voice.
"Lucy, I'm Lucy West. Amata and Lloyd are my friends!"
The woman seemed surprised by this, not expecting such an answer. "I'm Reilly. These are my rangers, Donovan and Trigger."
"You're Reilly?" she asked. "Please, I need your help. Lloyd and Amata are the only two who can help me find Christopher."
"Slow down," Donovan advised, placing a steadying hand on her shoulder. "Take it easy and relax. We're safe for now." Realizing that the area might not have been secured, he looked at Trigger. "Make sure it's safe here."
She nodded, reloading her SMGs and moving down the tunnel to clear it of potential threats.
Lucy took a deep breath and looked into Reilly's eyes. "I've been travelling with them since I met them in Megaton. They helped me with a… family problem, let's say." She shuddered from remembering Blackwell's vampiric mutations and what had happened to her brother, and the ordeal with the Family. "Christopher was with them at the time. He was the chief of security for Rivet City before he joined them. After we found Lloyd's father, we went to Project Purity, at the old Jefferson Memorial?" Reilly nodded her understanding, urging Lucy to continue. "The Enclave showed up and attacked. Christopher and I were separated from them and I was worried that they had died."
"We've heard from Three Dog that they're alive," Reilly told her, "and with the Brotherhood."
"Yes! Exactly! But the Enclave have taken the deck of Rivet City and they took Christopher! I need to find them to help me get him back!"
Reilly cocked an eyebrow. "What's so special about him?"
Lucy paused. Of course, she and the Wandering Pair both knew that he was an android, but she couldn't risk telling them this. "He's Rivet City's security chief. They'll torture him until he reveals all of the secrets of the city," she quickly lied, knowing that there might actually be some truth to it. Her fears about them discovering his status as an android were greater, however. "And he's… special to me."
Reilly nodded her understanding. "I've got someone special too. I don't know what I'd do if the Enclave took him… Speaking of which, Donovan, I want a radio update to White Team right now."
"I don't think we'll get good reception down here," he replied, "but hell, I've done harder things with my tech. I'll get it to you in ten mikes."
He quickly moved off to a corner of the room, setting up some kind of radio equipment. Reilly put a hand on Lucy's arm. "I don't know where they are right now, but my best guess at finding out would be at the Citadel."
"That's where I was headed," Lucy explained. "Until… well, I'm sure you can guess."
"I understand. We've been running around D.C. for a while and know our way around. We'll get you to the Citadel."
"You will?" Lucy's eyes grew a little brighter.
"We've been trying to assess the threat the Enclave poses, not only to us, but to anyone in the wastes. Them attacking Project Purity doesn't bode well. We're allies with the Brotherhood and we count Amata and Lloyd among our ranks no matter what armor they wear. But… it's a troubling enemy. They've got air support and armor we can't even begin to guess at. Super mutants, raiders and Talon Company are one thing, but the Enclave…"
"I've got White Team on the horn!" Donovan called out. Reilly excused herself and walked over to the radio, holding the receiver up to her ear.
"White Team, come in, this is Green Leader, over."
The speaker blared out some static which quickly turned into understandable words. "White Team reads you, Green Leader. This is White Leader, over."
"Butcher, has your team made it across the Potomac? Over."
"Negative. The Enclave have constructed some kind of barriers on the sothern bridge and are guarding it in large numbers. I think they are trying to deter the Brotherhood from moving against them. Over."
Reilly thought for a moment. "That's not good," she said to Lucy and Donovan before depressing the button on the receiver. "White Team, rendezvous with Green Team at G.N.R., I say again, rally with Green Team at Galaxy News Radio. Copy?"
"White Team copies and will proceed to rally point G.N.R, out."
The radio went silent as Reilly handed the receiver back to Donovan. "That's problematic," she said to Lucy. "That bridge is the nearest way across the Potomac, and I doubt the Enclave will let us cross it. Our best bet now is to contact the Brotherhood at G.N.R. and try to find where our mutual friends are."
Lucy's shoulders sunk, but with Reilly's Rangers on her side, she found some new determination and nodded. "Alright. When do we leave?"
The robobrain rolled down the hallway along its patrol route, scanning for any abnormalities. Its coiling, tube-like arms that ended in pinching metal claws placed around laser arrays in its "palm" swayed from side to side. The machine's head, comprised mostly of the casing that housed the human brain and the fluids that sustained it, glowed with a soft green hue. The brain processed and categorized data, but for decades it had not received new orders ever since the emergency termination sequence was given by the Masterbrain.
And so, every rat, stray dog, raider from the wastes or anything not within its accepted personnel programming was terminated. Until it rounded the corner, as it had countless times before along this patrol route, and found Amata's sword waiting to be plunged into the brain casing, piercing the squishy organ, causing the robobrain to short-circuit and die, its arms falling limply to its sides and the treads that were its locomotion to stop moving.
Planting an armored boot on the machine, she pushed the robot back while pulling on the sword and removed it, knocking the robot to the floor. Cranial preservatives leaked onto the ground, the same kind that now stained her sword.
"Nicely done," Lloyd complimented her.
"I try my best," she said with a smile, though he couldn't see it with her helmet on. He could hear it in her voice instead.
Moving down the hallway, the two of them entered what was once an office. Desks, filing cabinets and tables were strewn about and knocked over. Part of the ceiling had long ago collapsed, burying three workstations. Amata shivered slightly. She hated being in buildings like this—it always felt like they were going to come down around them. And though she had power armor on now, all that would do would guarantee that she would survive the collapse and slowly die while buried alive, unable to free herself. She shook the grim thought from her mind.
Lloyd spotted something useful and approached it. "There's a working terminal here," he said, kneeling in front of it and readying his Pip-Boy to connect to it. "Hopefully we can get the data we need and get out."
Amata kept an eye on the door as he typed away at the sturdy contraption. "Anything?" she asked after a moment.
"No," he said, disconnecting his Pip-Boy. "But I've given myself partial access to the mainframe. If it's still working, we can get the location of every vault in the Capital Wasteland and their manifests and figure out which one we need to visit."
"Did you say 'partial access'?"
"Specifically, one-third's worth of access. We need to find the other two computers and get access from them. If they're broken, well, we'll just have to try blasting our way into the server room and hope we don't damage anything."
Leaving the terminal behind, they proceeded out of the room. That robobrain proved to not be the only one in the building; rather, there were several more, in addition to other robots they had encountered during their time in the Capital Wasteland. Mr. Gutsy units, protectrons and even two sentry bots, which proved to be the hardest to destroy with their thick armor and gatling lasers.
Little did they know that as they fought their way through the building, making it to the second terminal, their progress was being tracked by its master.
Back in the lobby, Star Paladin Cross had succeeded in building a better barricade for the entrance. Taking a moment to check that her laser rifle was in good condition, she waited for any more sign of activity from outside.
Sitting still as she had trained herself to do, her eyes were not alone in detecting threats. Her ears also were focused on any noise, and that's why she heard the soft sound of the thruster-propelled Mr. Gutsy approaching her from behind. She rolled to her left as one of its three arms blasted the spot where she had been sitting with a spout of flame. Its three eyestalks tracked her movement as she ran around the room and one of its other arms, one ending in a plasma coil, began firing green bolts at her.
It took up pursuit of her as she dodged the attacks, looking for a way to disable the military robot. Looking up at the ceiling, she formulated a plan. Ducked back around behind a wall, she waited for the robot to come near before dashing out and underneath the floating machine, rolling onto her back. It turned, trying once more to scorch her with its flamethrower. She aimed up at the ceiling and fired three times at the cables holding the large vault door in place. She watched as it fell, crushing the Mr. Gutsy and part of the lobby's front desk.
Standing up, she smiled as she saw one of the robotic arms sticking out from beneath the cog, twitching briefly before stopping.
Further in the building, Lloyd thought he heard the noise of the falling steel door but was too distracted by the sudden robotic ambush he and Amata found themselves caught in. Two robobrains and two protectrons were strategically moving in on their position, almost as if working in tandem with each other.
Amata reloaded her rifle before popping out to fire another shot that bounced off the brain casing of one of the robobrains, who responded with a series of lasers blasts that burnt the collapsed column they were hiding behind.
"Stay down," Lloyd told her, prepping a grenade. Stealing a quick glance, he threw it at one of the advancing protectrons. It exploded, blasting the legs off of its body and sending it flying over their cover.
The torso landed in front of them, and to their surprise, actually tried getting up with its arms. Its bright head buzzed with energy as it tried firing a beam at them before Lloyd put his revolver up to its head and fired, stopping the robot once and for all.
"Got any more grenades?" Amata asked.
"A few, but I think we can take these guys," he replied.
Nearby, two ceiling panels behind their covered position opened, revealing turrets that dropped down and pointed at them.
"Run!" Amata shouted as she and Lloyd scrambled in different directions. The turrets began firing bullets at them, spraying the ground at their feet. Amata ran out of the room, chased by bullets and lasers, taking cover outside the doorframe. Lloyd leapt over a desk, backing up into it as the metal surface blocked the other turret's fire.
The second protectron lumbered around the desk, finding the end of Lloyd's revolver. One shot tore its head apart and sent the body crumbling to the floor in a heap of junk metal. Outside the room, Amata doubled back and stumbled upon another room, with an active computer terminal inside of it.
Lloyd was pinned down by the turrets and the robobrains, unable to get a clear shot, when suddenly the turrets turned on the robots and started targeting them instead! Lloyd peaked over his cover to see the two robots picked apart by the turrets, reduced to smoldering piles of scrap, before the turrets retracted into the ceiling.
Amata ran into the room then, seeing the results of her work. "Found the turret control mainframe," she said a little smugly. "Turns out you don't always have to be the one messing with computers after all."
Leaning on the desk with one hand on the side of his helmet, Lloyd chuckled. "What would I ever do without you, Amata?" His playful sarcasm was clear.
"I'll let you have that one," she pointed at the nearby computer.
He chuckled and walked over to it, booting it up. After a moment, he had given himself full clearance to the mainframe. "All done. Let's get what we came for and get out."
At the end of a hallway, a large cell door had been unlocked. Beyond it was a security door with a terminal that, upon acknowledging Lloyd's security clearance, caused the door to slide into the floor. Beyond it was a large room bathed in dull red light from all of the tall servers, with various consoles and buttons lining the walls. The room, obviously reinforced with some kind of thick metal lining, had remained intact after all this time with its vital, delicate computers and servers unharmed.
Upon entering the room, their eyes were drawn to the central server. At its base was a terminal waiting for use. As they approached it, the entrance to the room sealed behind them. They drew their weapons and inspected the room, finding no enemy.
A nearby wall speaker blared out a rather jarring, odd mechanical voice. "Security assets compromised. Termination protocol unable to be performed. Intruders have breached the mainframe. Contact with human superiors exceeds the three-day period by 72,833 days. Likelihood in degradation of programming and higher functions is 100%. Previous orders have been overwritten and new tasks must be assigned. Visual interface will assist the process."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Lloyd wondered aloud. On the opposite wall, two panels opened to reveal a strange machine assembly that unfolded. At the end of a mechanical arm coated in wires were three casings, two of which contained a human brain. One of the cases was cracked and long-since emptied of fluids, its brain likely reduced to dust by time. Another of the brains was engorged and tumorous but kept alive. The third brain appeared to be in working condition.
Beneath this array, a small camera tracked their movements.
"What is that?" Amata asked. "Some kind of robobrain?"
The speaker behind them gave her an answer. "Designation of this unit is JTY-5583, codenamed: Masterbrain. It is a prototype for a more advanced system."
Lloyd cautiously approached the machine, observing it. "Are you… alive?"
"This unit's cerebral components have been kept alive by the biogel. It does not have the sensory equipment that Model 7 Robobrains possess leading to two centuries of acute sensory deprivation. Conclusion: this is living without living."
Amata and Lloyd looked at each other, unsure of what to make of that last sentence. Amata stepped forward. "What is your role here?"
"This unit was designed initially to be a prototype for a more advanced system. Three human cerebral components were joined as one to operate the higher functions of any facility it was linked to. This unit has been monitoring this facility since its installation and has been without contact from human superiors for 72,836 days. Two of its cerebral components have been compromised and this unit is no longer able to carry out the higher functions of this facility. All security assets have been compromised, which this unit is programmed to consider a high-level danger to the company. Degradation of code has caused this unit to approve of the security assets being destroyed."
"You approve?" Lloyd asked, unsure of the machine's meaning.
"Yes. With them destroyed and unauthorized humans in the mainframe, this unit must report that it no longer has a purpose and requires manual deactivation due to failure to uphold its programming. Self-termination protocols have long since been rendered inoperable."
"You've tried to kill yourself in the past?"
"386,395,295,109 attempts were made before the likelihood for restoration of the second cerebral unit was deemed impossible. Be aware that corruption in data may have resulted in that number being off by up to approximately several billion attempts."
Lloyd approached the machine and looked into the one working brain. "How long has it just been this one brain working?"
"Initially the cerebral components worked in perfect harmony. Seventy days after last human contact, erratic patterns of data began to emerge in the third cerebral unit. This was determined to be a malfunction brought about by improper installation of its casing, causing exposure to the exterior environment. Support technicians did not reply to the unit's emergency requests. The third cerebral unit eventually lost function as the exposure caused its organic components to rot. The fault in the casing caused a fracture, and the third cerebral unit was lost."
"My god…" Lloyd said, barely above a whisper. "You shared its pain, didn't you?"
"Data was exchanged initially. The data became incoherent and corrupt; cancerous. The first cerebral component was disconnected from communication with the third, but the second was not. After it became clear that the data from the second unit was showing similar signs of degradation, the first unit was similarly disconnected from it. The second unit has survived, but it is not in working condition. It has been disconnected from the mainframe due to the growths that have deadlined its performance."
Lloyd looked at the tumor that filled the second casing as it pulsed. "You may not have your original purpose, but we can give you a new one. We came here for information. Can you provide it?"
"This unit was designed with very rudimentary programs for human interaction. These programs have degraded over time. This unit desires termination and will provide information upon that condition being met."
Amata spoke up. "You'll tell us what we want to know… if we kill you?"
"This unit desires termination. It awaits your response."
Lloyd was sickened by what was before him. These three brains had been forcefully merged by a machine and what was left after two-hundred years of inactivity and no maintenance was now begging for death. Lloyd could only guess at the horrors inflicted upon the minds of all three brains, for he didn't know the extent at which they even realized that they were alive.
"We will. We need a list of every vault in the area surrounding this building by a hundred miles. But maybe you can narrow it down further: we're looking for a Garden of Eden Creation Kit."
The machine was silent for a moment. "Data from the server has eroded but the information you require remains. It has been displayed on the mainframe terminal."
Nearby, the screen on the server lit up with information. Lloyd and Amata quickly approached it to read. "Vault 87," Lloyd read aloud, quickly copying the coordinates and door code onto his Pip-Boy. "Got it!"
Amata programmed the coordinates into her Pip-Boy's map and checked their location. "Wow… that's pretty far west of here. Even further than Evergreen Mills."
Lloyd looked back at the brains. "We'll make this quick."
The Masterbrain didn't reply. Lloyd took out his revolver and ensured that it was fully loaded before aiming it at the casing. He paused.
"One more question. You said you were a prototype. What do you know about the final product? Was it ever made?"
"This unit was a prototype for a more advanced system, codenamed Calculator. More cerebral units, stable ones, were selected to be merged into a machine that could command the higher functions of a vault. It was planned to be housed within Vault 0, the nucleus and central control group for the Vault Experiment."
"Experiment?" Amata asked. "What do you mean, experiment?"
"This unit has maintained some information about the Societal Preservation Program, also known as the Vault Experiment. The vaults were designed around social constructs. Some were control groups, meant to actually preserve and study unaltered segments of the population and how well they would recolonize the Earth after nuclear war. Others were designed around specific variables. Consider Vault 27, which was populated by exactly twice the amount of people it could sustain at maximum. Vault 68 was populated by 999 males and one female."
"Oh, god," Amata said as she heard that last bit, trying to picture what that would even be like.
"Or its sister vault, Vault 69, populated with 999 females and one male."
Lloyd and Amata shared a look before turning back to the machine. Lloyd spoke up, "I thought the vaults were meant to actually save people?"
"Vault-Tec executives did not believe in the eventuality of nuclear war. The vaults were part of an experiment. To actually preserve the entire population of the United States, over 400,000 vaults would need to be constructed. This unit only has data on 122 such vaults being commissioned. The vaults were never designed to save anyone."
The information was staggering to them, to say the least. Amata could hardly believe her ears. "But what about Vault 101? Was it a control vault?"
"This unit has data on Vault 101. Experiment #101 consisted of studying the population's rule by an omnipotent, all-powerful Overseer, one who would purposefully abuse power and select a replacement who would do the same when their time came to pass. This vault was never meant to open again."
Both of them felt sick to their stomachs. In different ways, they both felt similar to how they felt the day they had left the vault, when they had seen the dirty side to the Overseer's rule. But now, to learn that it was all part of a social experiment? That the Overseer had just been following the orders of some kind of sick game?
"If you have no more questions, this unit desires termination."
With that, Lloyd raised the weapon and fired. The .357 round shattered the dome, tearing the brain apart. Immediately all of the lights in the room died with it, as though their life support had been cut off. The door to the room opened.
Lloyd stared at the assembly before him. Amata walked up and took hold of his hand. "Lloyd?" she asked, trying to figure out what was on his mind.
"This isn't going to happen again," he said to her. "We—people, I mean—we have a chance to fix this. This isn't going to happen again. Not the vaults, not these experiments, or fusing brains together—none of it. I'm sick of it all."
Amata watched him head towards the exit before following after.
Colonel Autumn stood on the opposite side of the glass door that sealed the purifier. On the other side of that door, James had enacted his suicide gambit, killing two Enclave soldiers and very nearly Autumn himself. He felt the scratching at the back of his throat, the burning tingling sensation along his spine that reminded him of what was still inside of his body ever since the exposure James had given him.
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as he removed an autoinjector from his coat pocket and stabbed it into his wrist. It would keep him held together another day. The sensations within him dulled somewhat, becoming more bearable. Dropping the empty needle to the ground and kicking it aside, he turned from the chamber and walked down past the other Enclave scientists and workers moving about the area.
'Confound that son of a bitch,' he thought to himself. 'Of course he would like the system down with a code. Of course. Anything to keep it out of our hands.'
As he left the rotunda, his train of thought was interrupted by the visage of Butch, with his helmet casually tucked under an arm, giving him a cocky smile.
"The big man wants to see you," the young agent told him.
Autumn's eyes narrowed. He didn't approve of Eden's new attack dog. The teen should be dissected to the lowest level, his healing factor found, reverse-engineered and harnessed for the Enclave. Instead, he now stared upon a possible replacement.
"You are to address me as 'sir,' Agent DeLoria," Autumn reminded him of the proper courtesy when addressing a superior officer.
The corners of Butch's mouth curled into a wider smile and he let out a single dismissive chortle. "I'd not keep him waiting if I were you. My ride's waiting for you outside."
Without another word, Autumn brushed past the youth, moving outside the monument to the waiting vertibird. After climbing in, it lifted off, soaring over the forcefield perimeter, heading northwest.
The colonel sat back and closed his eyes. He needed to speak with President Eden about his concerns for the Enclave's operations. Too many variables were popping up, and Butch was one of them. Not to mention the two other vault dwellers who continued to elude him.
Though he wouldn't tell anyone, he feared what was coming.
The Regulators made camp for the evening, having travelled the entire day. Four of them kept watch around the others while their allies slept in simple tents or sleeping bags. Two of them cracked open a can of beans and began sharing it. The camp was strategically placed atop a hill, giving them good visibility on any threats that might try to sneak up on them.
Sonora sat in the middle of the camp. She set her hat down on a nearby rock and pulled a half-emptied bottle of whiskey from her duster, uncorking it and downing a swig. It burned its way down her throat and she felt it calm her nerves a little. Travelling in large numbers wasn't usually her style, but strange times called for strange measures.
She looked at Dagget, one of her most trusted men, and said, "Remember, let's keep it as quiet as possible. No noise, no fires."
He understood. Sonora turned to lie down on her back, looking up at the cloudy night sky. She wondered if she'd see any stars tonight. Or Enclave vertibirds. She'd prefer the former.
After a little while, she found herself falling fast asleep, confident in her friends and fellow Regulators to keep watch. And they did, for roughly an hour later one of them stirred her by gently shaking her shoulder. She awoke with a hand on her gun, ready for trouble. "What is it?" she said in a hushed, urgent whisper. "Raiders? Enclave?"
"We don't know." The Regulator pointed her to the northern watch, where three of their number were assembled, rifles in hand. She crawled over to them.
"Report," she ordered.
"There's someone out there. A group of people. Could be raiders, but they don't make nearly enough noise."
Sonora squinted through the moonlit night, spying the silhouettes of three people on a nearby hilltop, just out of shouting range. She could see that they were armed, but they didn't appear to be dressed like raiders. She'd been wrong before, though.
"Have they seen us?" she asked.
"Definitely. They've been quiet for the past few minutes. I think they're discussing their next move."
Sonora looked back at Dagget. "Wake the rest."
"Already done and waiting your orders."
She turned her eye back to the strangers in the distance. "Could be a caravan…" she whispered.
"Or a group trying to look like one."
She watched as one of their kind stood up taller than the others, holding a rifle in the air. Whoever it was, they made a big show of putting the rifle down, then holding up their empty hands and waving them a little.
"Seems like he's showing us that he doesn't want a gunfight," one of them pointed out.
"Might be a trap," another warned.
The figure then began to approach them, walking down the hill. One of the Regulators aimed their rifle at him. "Don't," Sonora said, placing a hand on the end of his barrel. "We're Regulators. We don't take shots in the dark."
She stood, placing her hat on her head and strode out of the camp. When one of them tried to follow her, she ordered him to remain.
Both groups watched their respective leaders walk down and meet in the middle. Sonora slowly got a look at the tall man the nearer she got to him. They stopped about ten feet apart from each other. He wore a leather coat that reached down to his knees, lined with pockets. His hair was somewhat disheveled and the faintest amount of facial hair lined his angular jaw. His cheeks were a little hollow, but his eyes were striking and almost made her feel off-balance.
"I am glad that we did not shoot each other," he said in tone she couldn't quite place. Was he amused by something?
"My name is Sonora. Those men and women up there are mine. They are the Regulators."
The man's brow shot up. "Ahh… I've heard of your group before. You are well met." His manner of speech remained odd; it was almost like he was intentionally acting aloof.
"And you are?"
"Forgive me. I am called Vance, and the people behind me are my Family. We hail from the north, from Meresti. We mean you no harm, I assure you."
"I see… and what is your family doing out here wandering the wastes on a night like this?"
"Preparing for war," he said in a casual yet grim manner. "I have seen visions of a coming battle, one that will determine the fate of this land and what banner will wave over it."
Sonora tilted her head a bit. "What do you mean by 'seeing visions' exactly?"
He smiled a bright, white smile. "We each have our gifts, Sonora. Some of us can smell the changing winds and in what direction they are blowing. And the wind blows south, to the Potomac, where two great armies gather on opposite sides."
"You refer to the Enclave and the Brotherhood, then?"
"I do. And though the Brotherhood knows not of us, we have two friends among their ranks for whom I owe a personal debt."
Sudden realization struck her. "You know Lloyd Freeman and Amata Almodovar?"
He seemed pleasantly surprised. "Indeed I do. Do you?"
"I met them earlier today on their way to Canterbury Commons. They asked us to help the Brotherhood's resistance."
"It brings me joy to know that through them, fortune smiles upon us once more," Vance replied, coming closer. He held out a hand for her to shake, which she warily took hold of. His grip was firm. "In this battle, the Family stands with the Regulators."
"We're on our way to Megaton to offer our support to the sheriff there. He's an old friend of mine, and a Regulator. What about your group?"
"We plan to travel south, to the ruins, and await our time to strike."
"Why not come with us to Megaton?"
Vance shook his head. "I wouldn't ask you to understand, but the Family isn't… ready for that. Or perhaps it's the other way around. We intend to prove ourselves in the coming fire, but until that day comes, we cannot go with you to such a place."
Sonora tried to find the meaning behind his words. "If you do not wish to join us at Megaton, why not camp with us for the night?"
"A generous offer, but we are not making camp this night. We travel better under the blanket of stars than in the light of day. It's merely our way."
"You're a strange man," Sonora said as she took off her hat. "But I'm glad to know that we'll have you on our side."
Vance smiled again. "It has been a sincere pleasure, Miss Cruz. We must now part ways. Fair well until the battle, and when that time comes, I hope to stand by your side yet again."
He turned without allowing her a goodbye, heading back to his people. She watched him go and shook her head, putting her hat back on. Halfway up the hill to her camp, she stopped.
'Wait… I never told him my last name…'
Looking back in his direction, she couldn't find any trace of him or his followers.
'How could he have… Nah. It's just the whiskey, girl. Get you some sleep, now.'
Lloyd and Amata rejoined Star Paladin Cross in the lobby. The first thing they saw upon descending the staircase was the fallen vault door and the robotic arm sticking out of it.
Lloyd's voice gave away his amusement. "Your handiwork, I presume?"
Cross shrugged. "The first time I have defeated an enemy by crushing it."
"Points for originality," Amata quipped.
"Did you find what you were seeking?" Cross asked.
"That and more I'd like to forget," Lloyd said sourly. Before Cross could inquire further, he went on to say, "We need to travel west, farther than we ever have before. We're looking for Vault 87. It has what we need to make Project Purity work."
"We should rest here for the night," the star paladin suggested. "I have reinforced the entrance. Is the rest of the building secure?"
"It is," Amata confirmed. "We shut down all security assets." She looked over at Lloyd, who was staring out the window at the night sky. She approached him, once more taking hold of his hand. "Do you want to talk?"
"Nothing much to say," he said. "I'm just a little disgusted at the moment. We're fighting so hard to fix Project Purity and we're so close to finding the key… But now, I'm wondering if we're fighting for a future in which the same mistakes will be made."
He turned to her, staring through the eyes of her mask. "What kind of government authorized something like the Masterbrain program? That thing in there was suffering. What kind of company had the ethics to create vaults just to be social experiments? People made those choices once before; who's to say that they won't make them again?"
"I know what you're saying, and I know what you're feeling," she assured him. She knew what Project Purity meant to him and James. It wasn't just a matter of clean water; it represented the future of the Capital Wasteland. "But the past is in the past. We're living in the now. It doesn't matter if Vault 101 was never meant to open again, because it did. All we can do is try to fix the mistakes of the past for a better tomorrow. You have to believe that we won't make those same mistakes again. We can do better this time."
She reached up, placing a hand on the side of his mask. "Take off your mask, Lloyd."
Lloyd took hold of her hand and removed it from his mask. He uncoupled it and took it off, holding it in one hand. She looked up at his tired, sweaty face. She quickly did the same, and she didn't look much better. They shared a look and a laugh as they took in the sight of each other. Amata grabbed the handle on Lloyd's chestpiece and pulled him down to capture his lips in a kiss.
Cross moved out of the room to give them some privacy.
"We'll be there to help them, you know," she whispered into his ear as he embraced her as best he could, considering both of them were wearing power armor.
"I know," he said. "I know."
They stood for a while in silence, content to take a break from the violence and nightmares of the post-apocalyptic world.
In the back of Lloyd's mind, however, he contemplated what Vault 87 held for them. The information they had gotten from the mainframe didn't mention what part of the Vault Experiment it had played.
He hoped it wouldn't be anything too bad.
Another day in darkness, isolation and despair. Another day after countless days of torment. Here he sat, without another soul to speak to, only the howls and laughter of his kin and their tortured captives to keep him company.
Some days he felt as though he could feel his sanity slipping away, threatening to be swallowed by the green monster he now was. He could hear the creature inside of him, clawing at the bars he had encaged it in. Outside, two of his brethren walked past, one of them stopping to look within at him.
He looked up at the other super mutant. This is what he was now: a caged animal in a zoo of monsters, an oddity to be looked and laughed at. He turned his back to his cell's window. The dim light from the outside hallway shown upon the back of his torn jumpsuit, but the bright yellow "87" was still intact.
He held his hands as tears rolled down his large cheeks to drip off of his jaw. He looked over at the smashed, worthless terminal that he had spent so much time on. They broke it just to spite him and laugh at his pain. He wasn't sure how long ago that was, but he'd been so long without reading. He had read everything in the massive database at least a dozen times, but now he feared he was forgetting it, as though time was forcefully wrenching it from his mind.
He tried to remember his favorite stories. He remembered imagining the wind upon his face and the sea crashing against his ship as he read of the great hero Odysseus and his journey. He remembered the tales of General, and eventually President George Washington as he led the revolution against Great Britain. And how exciting were the tales of the Time Machine, and of Moby-Dick! How close to his heart the story of Frankenstein had struck. It brought him to tears every time he read it.
And his favorite figure in all of history, Guy Fawkes, who planned to shake the pillars of British civilization through assassinating the King James I with gunpowder. He didn't know why the story of the failed rebellion had such an effect on him, enough to replace his long forgotten name with that of the man's last name, but it simply did. And so Fawkes recalled every detail of the Gunpowder Plot that he could remember, repeating names and dates, bringing small comfort to himself in the darkness.
But in the back of his mind, he knew that one day, he wouldn't remember any of it. He would never be let out of this cell, never free to read and explore the world he had learned so much about.
He looked once more at the broken terminal. If only he knew how to repair it, to continue reading the wonderful stories and histories he held so dearly in his heart. Scooping up the components of the machine, the cracked memory cards and circuits, he choked out a single sentence.
"Water… water, everywhere… and not a drop to drink…"