Chapter Forty-Two: Bleak Tunnels
He knows who tries it how cruel is sorrow,a bitter companion, to the one who has few
concealers of secrets, beloved friends. – The Wanderer-Anonymous
Sunshine doesn't cry.
It isn't that she doesn't want to. God, she just wants sink the floor and lose herself in her misery.
But there isn't any time.
My father is dead. I couldn't protect him. She doesn't care about escape, about the Enclave, about Project Purity because what good would all of that be without her father? He was the reason she was out in the wasteland. He had been that single shining glimmer of hope for her in this hellish world and he had been snuffed out.
To protect what they had been working on, what he had spent her entire life running away from. I couldn't protect him.
She swallows thickly, her feet pounding against the broken tiles of the memorial as the three of them rush to escape those demons in power armor. Charon speaks to her, has been speaking to her since he pulled her from the purifier, but she can't focus on his words. She catches familiar syllables and words. Sunshine. Sorry. Please. But she doesn't respond. She just follows, his hand gripping hers to the point of pain, and says nothing.
Li unlocks the grate to Taft Tunnels with a brutal efficiency, lifting the manhole and gesturing to Charon. Agincourt, Garza and Dargon are already in the tunnel and they frighten like rabbits when the manhole opens. Dogmeat is with them and he gives a short bark at the opening of the grate. Li gives them words of encouragement that Sunshine doesn't hear. Charon wraps his arms around Sunshine, cradling her to his chest as though she were a child, and jumps down to hit the hard ground. Li looks quickly from side to side before climbing down into the tunnel, pulling the manhole cover closed behind her and locking it with a deafening click. Sunshine leans into Charon, her face pressed against his shoulder and tries to focus on what needs to be done next. He keeps an arm loosely around her waist to support her but he can't stop the way his fingers clench and unclench the fabric around her hips.
He doesn't want to let go of her.
"Thank God someone else made it out," Dargon says with a heavy relief in his voice. "We heard gunshots. Who are these people?" Agincourt pushes past him and roughly grabs Sunshine, pulling her away from Charon. The ghoul growls, deep in the back of his throat, and reaches for his shotgun. Agincourt's hands are fisted in the front of Sunshine's vault suit. Dogmeat begins to bark wildly.
"What the hell is going on?" he demands wildly, shaking her roughly. She doesn't react, just looking at him with empty eyes that make Charon's heart clench.
"Daniel!" Li snaps, moving toward him.
"I better not find out that you or your father had anything to do with this! If that son of a bitch sold us out-" Agincourt never finishes his sentence. Sunshine's eyes widen, as though she were seeing him for the first time, and she lets out a choked, broken sound. She pushes Agincourt away from her with a surprising ferocity and follows him as he stumbles back against an aged metro wall. Her left hand grabs his throat, keeping him pinned to the wall, and with her right she hooks him in the jaw. She pulls herself up to face level with him, and says quietly,
"My father is dead, asshole." Agincourt's eyes widen in shock and Charon sees regret flicker across his face.
"Oh hell," he says. "Kid, I'm sorry-"
"Save it!" she snaps, pushing away from him. Her entire form shakes as she struggles to regain some sense of calm. She takes in a deep, shuddering breath and her mouth clamps shut to stem the tide of sobbing that wells up in her throat. Her eyes lift up to meet Charon's and he has never felt so helpless underneath her eyes than he does at that moment.
"We have to escape while we can," Li says, cutting straight to the point. She takes a tentative step toward Sunshine, who doesn't acknowledge her. "Catherine!"
"Don't call me that," she says, her voice dull.
"We need you," Li says firmly. Sunshine scoffs.
"You heard me." Sunshine turns her gaze away from Charon to look at Li incredulously.
"You need me?" she says, laughing and it is a hollow and bitter sound. "Of course you do. You need me and Charon. You all are scientists, and with two thirds of our security force gone, we're the only ones who can protect you."
"We have the Enclave behind us," Li says. "And who knows what ahead of us. You have combat experience." Sunshine's laughter turns almost hysterical and the rest of them tense up, moving away. All of them except Charon. He moves closer to her, watching her shaking her head.
All the times they excluded us, she thinks. All the lonely glances my father gave them. All the shit Agincourt said. The way they would discreetly leave the room whenever I walked in. She looks at them, really looks at them. They're all scared and trembling, staring at her with worry creasing their faces. She wants to be vindictive, wants to leave them to rot, because why should they be alive when her father is dead? Her father, who poured his heart and soul into this project. Her father, who poured his heart and soul into her. He had been better than all of them, worth more than any of them, and more precious to Sunshine than her own life.
"It's not fair," she whispers. She feels a warm presence grasp her hand and she looks down. Her pale, thin hand pokes out from underneath the shape of a ruined one. She fights the urges to both push Charon away and pull him close.
He makes the decision for her.
He pulls her into a tight hug and looks down at her like he knows what she is thinking, what she is feeling. She wants to rail against, wants to beat her fists against his chest until he leaves her because how could he know what this feels like? How could he know how empty she feels inside?
"It isn't fair," he says quietly. "But we have a job to do. We have to get these people out."
"Why?" No sound comes out of her throat, but she mouths the words before she can think better of it. She feels her face burn in shame as soon as she mouths it but she can't stop the bitterness that wells in her heart. Why them? Why did she have to be the only one of them to lose anyone?
"Because that's what you do," Charon says gently. "You are the 'hero of the wastes'."
"That's just what Three Dog calls me," she says with a weak, forced smile. "False words to give hope to a dying wasteland."
"It isn't just that," he says. "You're a good person, and it shows." Tears well up in her eyes and her throat burns with the effort of holding them all in.
"I'm not a hero," she whispers, her voice cracking. "I'm just a kid who got kicked out into the wasteland, and didn't have the good sense to die."
"Your father put a lot into you. He raised you right," Charon says, with a tone that sounds both savaged and broken by grief. His hands grip her shoulders and she feels his desperation in the warmth of his hands. "And you've done more than your fair share. I know you have. But don't give up on me now, Sunshine. Don't let that light in your eyes go dim. They need you, and so do I." His tone is soft, non-judgmental and so tender that she could kick herself for ever doubting that he knew exactly how she was feeling. Other than her father, the only other person to know her better than she knew herself was Charon.
She nods her head and gently presses her hands against Charon's chest. His arms drop from around her and she takes in another shuddering breath. She takes her plasma rifle in hand and looks toward the Rivet City scientists.
"Who here can use a gun?" After a long moment, Agincourt softly speaks up.
"If you have a pistol, I can usually hit what I'm aiming at." She nods, shouldering her pack off down her arm and opening it. She remembers finding an old battered pistol in the sub-basement and fixing it up with the intention of selling it to Flak and Sharpnel. She hands it to Agincourt instead.
"Anyone else?" she asks. When no one responds, she turns her back to them. "All right. Stick close. We're getting out of here."
The Taft Tunnels are bleak and ruined things. Trash floats in pools of irradiated water and the group has to move slowly incase the enemy lurks around the corner. A strange floated eyebot that Sunshine had seen around the wastes from time to time whizzes past them. It doesn't react to their presence but Charon aims his shotgun and blows it apart anyway. Sunshine nods. The eyebot probably had a camera feed to whoever programmed it. The Enclave knew they were coming, with or without the camera feed. But a false sense of hope was better than no sense of hope at all.
She looks back at the team of scientists following her. They're scared, breathing heavily and trembling. She hopes Agincourt doesn't have to shoot his gun. He shakes so violently that he would miss whatever he aimed at and do more harm than good. It dawns on her that these people had fought their way to Rivet City and then put up their arms in the name of civilization. They worked on bettering the world around them, becoming soft and complacent. They are not warriors; they are scientists. They are needed, just as her father was needed, just as Abbott and Costello were needed, and she'll be damned if she lets another person die.
With her heart heavy with grief and determination, she marches forward and with her plasma rifle gripped tightly in hand.
They come across feral ghouls and the sounds of their guns echo throughout the tunnels. Sunshine winces as she fights because she knows that the echoes of gunfire will draw worse enemies to them. The ghouls scream and howl, swiping at them with deadly claws. The sight of them still makes her heart pound in her chest and her throat dry. They still terrify her but she shoves that fear aside because they have far worse enemies waiting for them in the depths of the tunnels. She can hear the pounding of feet clad in power armor echo throughout the halls like war drums. She motions for the Rivet City scientists to follow her. She signals to Charon and he nods, signaling that they should set up an ambush. She fights her way through the feral ghouls that still live and leads the scientists to a rundown maintenance closet.
"What are you doing?" Li demands. She tries to make her voice full of indignation but it doesn't work. Her fear bleeds through and Sunshine feels almost sorry for her.
"They're coming," she barks, a little more forcefully that she meant to. "I need you to stay in here and hide." Li hisses and Sunshine is sure that she's wounded the other woman's pride.
"We can't just skulk away, hiding in here like molerats," she says and her voice takes on a note of shrill panic. "You can't just leave us here!"
"Madison!" Sunshine snaps, and they both wince at how much like her father she sounds. She swallows past the pain in her throat and says, in a gentler tone, "You're all civilians. You've grown lax surrounded by the safety of Rivet City. I can get you out of her but I need you to trust me. Can you do that?" Li looks at her as if she considers distrusting the girl. A thousand memories flash through her eyes and she finally nods.
"All right," she says quietly. "I'm trusting you not to leave us behind."
"We're just going to scout ahead, clear the way," she says. "Get to the back of the room and don't make any noise. We'll come back for you." She kneels down to Dogmeat, taking his face in her hands, and says,
"Hey buddy. I need you to stay here and protect Dr. Li and our friends. Can you do that for me?" Dogmeat whines lowly, nudging Sunshine's leg with his nose. She pats his head almost sadly, and her fingers curl in his fur.
"Sunshine," Charon's voice sounds out, quiet and urgent. She forces her hand away from Dogmeat's fur.
"I know," she says, shutting the door behind her and hiding behind an ancient Pre-War barricade. Her plasma rifle weighs down her hands and she feels as though she is drowning, weighed down by death and ozone.
"The entrance is at our six," Charon says, his quiet voice grounding her to reality. She nods, gripping her rifle tighter and waiting for the horde in power armor to burst through. Her breath echoes shakily in time to the footsteps and the Enclave soldiers burst through the door with a loud bang. She forces herself not to startle at the sound.
The stillness in the air crackles with a tense electricity as the soldiers do a brief scan of the room. Don't find us. Don't find us. Please.
"Huh," one of the soldiers says. "Must've been nothing." Charon catches her eye and puts a single finger to his mouth, urging her to be quiet. She nods, gripping her plasma rifle to her chest and forcing herself to relax.
"Or it's those damned ghouls," another one says. He takes off his helmet, running a hand through his hair and exhaling in a shaky breath. Is it possible for monsters to be afraid? "I hate those fuckers." Charon takes a deep, steadying breath and cocks his shot gun. He pops up from behind his barricade and shoots the undefended soldier in the head.
"Shit!" The soldiers reach for their weapons in a flurried panic. 'Fucking ghouls!" Sunshine braces her rifle against her soldier and exits her barricade. She shoots an Enclave soldier, a woman, just as she turns to fire her laser rifle at her. She chokes, and her armor begins to melt into that green goo that Sunshine will never get used to seeing. It takes her body with it, setting her flesh aflame until nothing is left but an ugly, bright green stain.
Sunshine can't bring herself to feel any remorse, not with the death of her father still burning hot and bright in her heart.
"Well," she says, aiming her gun at the last soldier, who drops his weapon and holds his hands above his head. "You were only half right." The soldier shakes violently, like he suffers from radiation poisoning. His helmet clanks against the rest of his power armor where it connects. Sunshine takes a step forward, gun raised, and he whimpers softly. Charon sees the determination in her eyes, the hard set of her mouth, the heavy tenseness in her shoulders, and he sees himself reflected back at him.
An unbearable pain blossoms in his chest as though he'd been shot.
"Sunshine," he says softly. She stops her advancement, but does not lower her weapon.
"What?" she asks, a hard edge to her voice.
"I know what you're thinking, kid," he says.
"Of course you do," she says. "Don't tell me you don't agree." Charon moves his eyes between her rifle and the Enclave soldier. His gun still lies at his feet where he dropped it, and he makes no move to retrieve it.
"Soldier," Charon says to their captive. "Remove your helmet." The soldier's hands shoot jerkily up to his helmet, causing Sunshine to flinch and tighten her hold on her rifle. "Slowly!" After a brief moment's hesitation, the soldier removes his helmet and drops it to the floor with a loud clank.
"Goddamn it," Charon swears, taking in his wizen and wrinkled cheeks and bright, watery eyes. He looks over to see the resolve in Sunshine's eyes wavering. He rolls his shoulder, trying to remove the tenseness in his muscles, and ignores the pain behind his eyelids. Behind the curtain of his mind a voice screams 'protect the contract holder! Do what you were trained to do!' He is eager to pounce and the sound of a phantom shotgun echoes in his ears.
"Sunshine," he says again. "He's afraid and unarmed."
"My father was afraid," she says, her voice hollow. "He didn't even have his pistol with him." She tilts her head, looking through the Enclave soldier,swears she can see the boy he used to be reflected back at her. "Is this a common practice of the Enclave? Going in and killing innocent people? Killing people who are trying to make the world a better place?"
"Please, ma'am," the old man croaks. She jerks forward, aiming the rifle at his head. He flinches violently and a low keening sound escapes his throat.
"Answer the question!" she shouts, her voice echoing off of the metro walls. She trembles, the image of the old Enclave soldier swimming back and forth across the sea of her vision. Charon watches the old soldier tremble, watches him trying not to cry, and he takes a step toward her.
"Answer me," she whispers, her voice a broken and pitiful thing. Charon wraps his arms around her, his hands closing around the butt of the plasma rifle. He remembers teaching her how to shoot and a sick dread pools in his stomach.
"Let go of the gun, Sunshine," he says against her ear. "This isn't you." She shakes, watching the old soldier shaking too, and sighs.
"Get out of here," she says quietly. The old man seems to collapse in on himself in relief.
"Much obliged, ma-"
"GET OUT OF HERE!" Her voice is a roar, a desperate and ugly thing, laced with rage and regret. The man runs as though he'd just learned how, like a child stumbling away from monsters in the dark. Her hands let go of the rifle and Charon holds it up, his arms still around her. She swallows past a burning throat, the taste of bile on her tongue and she exhales slowly.
"We have to keep moving," she says.