It was late evening when James stepped back into the familiar Rotunda for the last time in his life.
He had no inkling of the life-altering (and life-ending) events that would unfold in about an hour, and it was with wild jubilance that he turned to face his daughter, the Rivet City science team, and Madison as they entered the building after him.
"We're back!" he cried. "Can you believe this?"
He turned and strode several paces down the hallway toward the gift shop. It smelled musty, and the air felt distinctly damp but these minor inconveniences did little to dissuade James. It was here at this Rotunda that everything had begun and everything had ended. Now, it could begin once more.
"Dad, it's an old building, not a candy store," Sara said, biting back a laugh.
"It's better than a candy store!" he insisted. "This is it! This is where Project Purity is going to be resurrected after twenty years! Your mother's dream, Sara… Here!"
"Our dream," she corrected him. "It's mine now too."
"Of course. I'm glad you're here with me once more."
Madison remained obstinately quiet as the group carved a path through the Super Mutant bodies and the shoddily constructed barricades the monsters had erected. The carnage seemed relatively recent—the creatures' faces were beginning to sink in with decay, but they were far from skeletal.
"Who killed all of these Super Mutants?" Anna Holt asked with wonder, nearly tripping over the outstretched arm of one. Madison barked at her to watch where she was going.
"I did," Sara replied calmly, leading the way through the chaos. She held her right arm out in front of her, spreading her Pip-Boy's minimal lighting across the floor in front of them to help guide their way.
"You what?" James asked. He nearly stopped short in his shock, but he was not eager to find himself outside of the halo of light he and Sara's Pip-Boys provided the group.
"I told you. I had to track you down somehow. Dr. Li told me you'd headed over here after you spoke with her, and your recordings led me to Vault 112."
"But…you killed all of these Super Mutants. By yourself?"
"Dogmeat helped. Didn't you, boy?"
The mutt at Sara's heels barked joyously in response to the sound of his name.
James thought back to the little girl in Vault 101 who had screamed and ducked whenever she fired off her BB gun. It had taken her a few weeks to move past the sheer terror she felt at the sharp sound in the confined space behind the old basement lab. He could hardly believe it was the same girl who now strode confidently beside him: no longer a little girl, but a young woman, clad in salvaged combat armor, with a hunting rifle in her hands and a switchblade strapped to the side of her thigh. If not for the red hair and the wire-rim glasses, he would not recognize his own daughter at all.
This realization filled him with both terror and pride so fierce he felt as though the two emotions physically filled his chest. He could hardly fathom what sort of events over the span of hardly a month could have changed his timid daughter who preferred to spend her time doing paperwork in the safety and quiet of the physician's office to this burgeoning fighter whose face and hands were already visibly weathered by the harshness of the Wasteland.
Back in Rivet City, she'd told him of her terrifying first days outside of the Vault: how she'd spent her very first night in the outside crying in a closet in Moriarty's Bar because no one was willing to lend her a bed for free and of the first man she'd had to kill (she mentioned she had been forced to protect herself with lethal force to escape the Vault but she refused to tell him who these attackers had been). It was as he had feared: a lone raider out to steal some caps and rape someone if he could. She admitted she'd managed to wrestle a knife from her pocket and thrust it into the man's temple as he'd fought to simultaneously pin her to the ground and undo the bottom half of his armor.
But, despite the horrors that had forged this new warrior, James was glad to see her emerge. He'd spent more nights lying awake in worry than he cared to admit to Sara. He wondered: why was she more content to spend time with him than go hang out with the other girls her age? Why was she so painfully shy but unflinchingly devoted around Amata? In a darker moment, he'd once wondered why she had to be attracted to other women; why did she have to further alienate herself from her peers? He was ashamed of these thoughts. He knew she could not choose how she felt, but all he wanted was a safe, happy, independent life for her once he left Vault 101. Why had she always seemed so adverse to his unspoken wishes?
Sara pushed open the heavy door that led into the Jefferson Memorial's Rotunda. James stepped inside and breathed in deeply, unfazed by the musty smell that clung to the old lab. The last time he'd been here he had been no closer to a solution than when he'd left nineteen years earlier with a tiny baby cradled in his arms. Now, he finally had the missing piece…or at least knew that said missing piece actually existed.
Madison was still quiet as she joined them in the Rotunda. Her assistant, Anna, let out an audible gasp of wonder, and James was tempted to do the same. Despite the rusted steel beams and the creaking stairwell up into the old lab the place still shone with the promise of discovery. He could picture Catherine in the scenery just as effortlessly as he'd seen her there so long ago with her blonde hair pulled up in a messy ponytail and one hand resting gently on her swollen belly while the other fluttered over the purifier's control panel. One palm nestled against both of her babies.
He walked over to stand beside the two precious things his wife had left him and slung an arm over Sara's shoulders. She smiled at him just as her mother had grinned at him nineteen years ago.
"Let's get to work, honey."
One quick glance over the Memorial's maintenance panel told James there was more to be done before they could truly get started than he originally suspected. Still, he was not discouraged. He, Catherine, and Madison had set up the lab so only two people were needed to work on it at any given time. It had made shift rotations much simpler.
He and Madison could settle into their old workstations while Sara fixed some of the basic maintenance problems. He was glad to have her out of the way anyways, simply for her own safety, as he was concerned that the power grid could possibly spark severely once it was kicked to life after nearly two decades of dormancy.
There was some flooding too down in the sub-basement that would make access to the main circuit breaker all but impossible. Despite these setbacks, he sighed happily as he rummaged around in an old storage locker for some old fuses.
"Just like old times, eh, Madison?" he asked.
She ran a finger down one of the control panels and it came away coated in dust.
"Well, at least I still look good," she finally said.
It took James a moment to recognize that his stern colleague was actually making a joke. He laughed, and she soon joined in too.
"I'll give you that," he told her.
Sarah watched their exchange with obvious discomfort, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Madison's team from Rivet City had begun to settle into their roles with little effort: Anna Holt and Alex Dargon were taking down some initial readings at their mentor's instructions. In that moment she looked more like the 19 year old he remembered leaving in Vault 101, in spite of her weaponry and armor.
Sensing his child's feelings of awkwardness, James withdrew himself from the storage trunk and spoke directly to her.
"Love, while I'm searching for these fuses, will you do me a favor?"
"It looks like there's been some flooding in the sub-basement, and we can't turn on the electricity with all that standing water. Could you run down there and engage the pumps to start draining all of it out?"
Sara's face fell a little at these words. They stared at one another in silence for several long seconds. Finally, a soft scoff escaped her lips.
"You…you want me to run around turning on drains and pumps, Dad? Can't Garza or somebody else do it?"
"I don't see why you're so reluctant to do this, Sara. You've been saying you want to help me—"
"Yeah, actually help you! I thought…" She trailed off and shook her head. "Never mind. Fine. They're in the sub-basement, right?"
She turned to go, and James reached out to grab her hand.
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?"
"I just thought I'd be taking Mom's place here," she muttered, refusing to look him in the eyes. "Instead, you're making me run errands anyone could do."
James couldn't help but smile a little. There was a new edge to her voice (and one he couldn't say he appreciated, but that was a conversation for another time), but underneath it there was the little girl he recognized: the one who wanted to work alongside him. He tugged on her hand and pulled her in close to him, tapping his ear to indicate he wanted to whisper something to her.
"I know this isn't what you had in mind right away," he said quietly," but I'm asking you to do these errands, as you call them, because I trust you. I'm sure Madison's colleagues are all very nice people, but this is delicate equipment that is vital to our work. I need someone I know I can rely on."
Sara didn't seem entirely convinced, nor were his words entirely true, but they seemed to placate her enough.
"Okay," she acquiesced. "Just switch the pumps on and then come back to you?"
"You've got it. There are intercoms along the way you can reach me on if you have any questions."
With a word to the mutt near her feet, Sara and Dogmeat turned and headed out of the Rotunda.
In her absence, the remaining four scientists worked in silence. It was the same quiet that had descended over the Rotunda many times two decades ago. James reveled in it. He thought of the times he and Catherine had shared shifts here before they had acted on their feelings: flirtatious glances shared over a control panel, the way she tended to "accidentally" bump into him every single time she passed by, and, finally, the time she'd simply said "James, can we stop pretending?" and kissed him.
They'd been married only six months later—less than a year after they'd met out West and decided to relocate their efforts to the D.C. Tidal Basin at the urging of her old friend Dr. Li. They'd been careful at first, eager at and inspired by their initially promising findings, and knowing a baby would change the project's entire dynamic. But two years after they'd married, progress was at a standstill, and Catherine and James' shared overnight shifts often turned toward less scientific pursuits. They'd been careless about it, they had both admitted this when Catherine found out she was pregnant. But she had been so excited at the prospect of being a mother; this infectious excitement had washed away the multitude of doubts James had at the idea of being a parent.
They should have spent more time preparing too. Elder Lyons had offered to have some Brotherhood medics on stand-by as Catherine neared the end of her pregnancy, but she had insisted they weren't necessary. James had vouched for their presence, as they had far more experience than he and Madison as well as much more advanced medical supplies should anything go wrong, but Catherine remained adamant that her first (and likely only) child did not need to come into the world in a room full of people its parents did not know.
Things had seemed fine anyways, he had convinced himself. She had no trouble working up until the day Sara was born. She'd been the one who calmly proclaimed, "Oh, I think that was a contraction" in the middle of running some tests, then refused to head down into the makeshift clinic room they'd set up for the baby's arrival until those tests were finished.
They could have used available birth control…they could have tested Catherine for any health problems once they found out she was pregnant…they could have prepared for her labor more effectively…they could have, they could have, they could have. But nothing changed what happened. Despite the nineteen years separating him from his wife, James felt a wave of sadness come over him as he sat listening, fuses in hand, for the flood pumps to switch on.
There was a very soft thump below him, and a few seconds later Sara's voice came crackling over the intercom.
"The pumps are on, Dad."
James pressed the button to reply, and leaned in.
"Good work, honey. Hurry back, and I'll give you the switches you need for that main door."
"Okay, I'll be right up."
"You have such an amazing daughter, Dr. Fairchild."
James started at the new voice right behind him. He glanced up to find Anna Holt standing at a nearby computer, casually pressing keys despite the lack of electricity that kept the console firmly shut off.
"I'm sorry," she continued. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"No, no, that's okay," he reassured her, getting to his feet with some aid from a nearby chair. "And thank you. She's very much like her mother."
"Did you hear what they say she did in Megaton?" Anna continued. When James did not reply she took this as a sign to press on. "You've been there, right? You know that giant bomb in the middle of town—the one that those freaky cultists worship? According to some caravan drivers, who heard it from the sheriff in Megaton, Sara disarmed that thing."
Now she had his attention. James looked at the young assistant incredulously. Sure, he knew his daughter was intelligent…but to disarm a 200-year-old atomic bomb on her own? Surely, the facts had been greatly exaggerated in the rumor mill.
"No, I hadn't heard that," he finally told her.
Six feet came padding up the Rotunda's stairwell, and Sara and Dogmeat reappeared as if on cue.
"Honey, did you really disarm that bomb in Megaton?" James asked the moment his daughter stopped in front of him with her hand outstretched toward the fuses he held.
She was briefly taken aback by the suddenness and randomness of his question, but she nodded.
"Yeah," she finally said with an air of complete nonchalance.
James' jaw dropped in awe and horror. Was she insane? Who went voluntarily wading in that irradiated water to tinker with an unstable bomb?
"I…uh…I mean, honey, I'm proud of you, but that was incredibly dangerous!"
"I didn't go and just hit it or anything stupid," Sara insisted. "The flap over the control panel was loose anyways, and I was very gentle."
"Yes, but if something had gone wrong…"
"But it didn't. I couldn't just sit around and wait for it to blow up and take all of those nice people…well, okay, most of them are nice…out with it."
James raised a hand and placed it against her face, delicately tracing her cheekbone for a few seconds.
"I just don't want you to get hurt," he finished lamely.
"I'm okay, Dad. I promise."
She reached out and took the fuses out of his other hand, then spun on her heel and started back out of the Rotunda once more.
"See you in a few minutes!" she called.
True to her word, it took Sara less than five minutes to locate and replace the dead fuses. The entire Memorial filled with a soft hum that grew louder in pitch until, with a great screech of effort, the Rotunda's main light flickered to life the same moment its six control panels and two computers all began to simultaneously beep and whir in protest. Alex, Anna, and Madison quickly set the devices to loop on a normal restart, which quieted them down. Once again Sara's voice crackled over the intercom.
"I'm hoping that terrible scraping sound was all the power coming back on up there, Dad?"
"The control panels were all a little reluctant to come out of their twenty year nap, but things look good up here. I appreciate it."
One angry beeping continued to blare near the intercom. Asking Sara to hold on for a second, James reached over to check out the problem.
"Sweetheart?" he continued.
"It looks like the pipes on the museum level need draining too. The switch should be on your way back up out in the Memorial's entrance hallway by the gift shop. Can you stop by and turn those pumps on before you report back here?"
"Geez, Dad," Sara replied, but there was a note of playfulness in her voice. "Next you're gonna ask me to fix all the toilets in here."
"Well, if you're offering…" he joked.
Her laughter sounded over the intercom, and it only made him grin further. It was good to be working alongside her once more. He felt he had forgotten how infectious her enthusiasm could be.
"I'll see you when you get back."
"You bet, Dad."
The intercom stopped crackling, which signaled Sara had taken her finger off the button. He pulled up a chair and settled back to peruse one of the consoles for copies of old notes. Surely, there was much he had forgotten.
Within a few seconds, he was already engrossed in old calculations. Off in the distance he heard a steady whirring that began to grow in intensity.
"Alex, can you shut that off?" he asked, waving a hand in the general direction of the noise.
"Of course, Dr.—" the young man began, but Madison threw out an arm to stop him.
"James," she said, severely.
"I'm listening!" he insisted, reluctantly tearing his gaze away from the computer screen.
"That doesn't sound like any sort of machine we have in here."
The four scientists stopped speaking, and in the hushed silence they listened. The whirring continued to grow louder, until it was very clear that it was not a protesting control panel as James had originally expected.
"What is that?" Anna whispered.
The intercom crackled to life once more.
"Dad, some helicopters just landed outside on the walkways."
"Shit!" Madison cried, dropping the clipboard she was holding.
"Everybody stay calm," James demanded. "We don't know who they are. We have nothing to hide. This place is hardly operational."
"Dad, what's going on?" There was a hint of panic in his daughter's voice, evident even over the old intercom.
"Sara, I want you to stay where you are, do you hear me?"
"I can see them through the grates down here. I don't think they're Brotherhood, Dad. They're wearing some sort of metallic armor that I don't recognize."
James' gaze snapped over to Madison who stared at him in horror.
"Enclave," she said quietly.
"Madison, lock the doors. Sara, you stay where you are."
"What did Dr. Li say, Dad? Who are these people?" Her voice was rising with each word, fear obvious in each one.
"It's okay, honey," James said more forcefully than he meant to. "Stay quiet and stay down where you are with Dogmeat."
There was a magnificent crash in the front of the building. It sounded like the gift shop door being kicked in. Madison was running down the Rotunda's stairwell to lock its two entrances. Alex darted over to help her. Each door's deadbolt clicked reassuringly into place, but James was not confident they would hold for long. His previous experiences with the Enclave were, thankfully, brief and from a distance, but he had heard stories of their methods. He doubted something as simple as a door built over two hundred years ago to keep out dumb kids who wanted to sneak inside the Memorial at night would keep our determined people armed with plasma weapons.
"What do we do?" Anna asked him, her voice quavering.
"We'll talk to them," James told her. "We don't know what they want. They're probably not here to hurt us."
There was another loud crash against one of the Rotunda doors, but it did not budge. Madison and Alex jumped away from it at the sound, backing into the space underneath the Rotunda.
It was deathly quiet except for the Enclave's sounds on the other side of the door. James thought of the Super Mutant attacks that had increased in frequency in the year before Sara was born. They'd had a few close calls, but the Brotherhood guards had always prevented the monsters from ever reaching the Rotunda doors.
With the sound of splintering metal hinges, the door gave way. Three heavily armored individuals strode in through the wreckage brandishing plasma rifles. An older man followed them. He seemed insignificant in stature and attire compared to his hulking, fully armored fellows, but they looked to him for guidance.
"Can I help you?" James asked, stepped out onto the upper stairwell landing.
The older man's gaze shot up to James, and he beckoned the three guards to follow him, seemingly ignoring Madison and Alex who stood less than five feet from him.
"Yes, I believe you can. I am Colonel Autumn, and I am here on Enclave authority."
"I wasn't aware the Enclave had any authority in the Tidal Basin."
Colonel Autumn stiffened at these words, and he ascended the stairs with more rapidity than James would have expected of a man his age.
"When you see the Enclave, you see the United States Government. We are authorized to restore order and civility, by any means necessary."
James felt a prickle of fear run down his spine at these words. Any means necessary? Internally, he begged Sara to stay where she was, hidden and safely out of sight, while he sorted this out.
"I see," he replied, willing himself to keep calm. "Colonel, is it? This is a privately funded project, not a government subsidiary."
Autumn put a hand on James' shoulder. It was a friendly gesture in appearance, but he used this leverage to force James back into the Rotunda.
"The Enclave is seizing this project. You will hand over all activation codes and assist in operations."
James fought back against the Colonel's hand on his shoulder. Sensing this resistance, Autumn nodded to one of his guards to seal the airlock. The door slid shut behind him, sealing the two men, two of the Enclave soldiers, and Anna inside the Rotunda. Anna shrieked at the sound of it clanging shut. She backed away from the Colonel until she hit a control panel.
Breathing shakily, James glanced outside for a second before continuing. There was still no sign of Sara. He was grateful.
"As I told you, Colonel, this is a private project, and I'll have to ask you to leave."
"And as I told you, the Enclave is seizing this project, and you will assist in its operations. Do I make myself clear?"
Over the man's shoulder, James finally saw her enter. Sara came running in, taking the stairs two at a time, with her rifle out and ready to fire. Dogmeat was barking ferociously. She stopped short at the sight of the airlock door separating her from her father. Their eyes met for a moment.
"I would help you if I could, Colonel," James pressed on, his gaze not leaving his daughter who was frantically clawing at the bulletproof glass. "Our project isn't yet operational—"
Before he could finish this explanation, Autumn raised a hand in signal to one of his guards. The man pulled out his rifle, aimed it at Anna, and fired. The sound was deafening in the enclosed space, and James saw the young woman slump over, dead, out of his peripheral vision.
He could not tear his gaze from Sara. He knew what he had to do. There was no other way to protect both her and Project Purity.
She was so amazing, he mused, even as he tried to focus on Autumn who was shouting at him: "Do I make myself clear yet?" The perfect blend of her parents…though, to her credit, he believed she had inherited Catherine's personality almost down to the tee. He hated the thought of leaving her, especially now that she was no longer tucked away in the safety of the Vault. There was so much still left unspoken between them. They were supposed to have the rest of his natural life to talk about everything. The unfairness of it only fueled his fury at the Enclave official standing opposite him.
"There's no need for violence," James insisted. "Of course I will cooperate with you. Just give me a moment to get the facility operational."
He gave his daughter a reassuring smile before he turned to the main control panel. He found his hands were shaking…was he afraid? Afraid of what? Afraid to die? Or afraid to leave his lovely daughter alone?
He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow, and slowly entered the code to shut the whole thing down. It was "612"—the opposite of the "21:6" that had provided the inspiration for it all. His finger hovered uncertainly over the two.
"My patience grows thin," Autumn spoke up harshly.
Taking a breath to steady himself, James decisively brought his index finger down ont the final button. There was a frantic blaring from a nearby console as a lethal dose of radiation began to flood the chamber.
"You fool!" Autumn hissed, but James paid him no attention.
He estimated he had less than a minute of consciousness left, and he did not want to waste it on the Colonel. Instead, he turned back to face Sara who was now audibly screaming even over the din of the radiation alarm. His Pip-Boy's Geiger counter whirred to life as he crossed the distance between them and placed his hand on the glass door separating them.
"Go," he told her.
He felt his knees growing weak, and he fought to remain standing. He hated to see his child cry. Her screaming was dying down, replaced now by a wave of tears. Even if he could escape now, it was likely too late to be saved. But what he wouldn't give to remove the glass between them and brush off her tears like he had always done.
She put her hand up against his, and though the airlock door still separated them he imagined he could feel her palm on his. She would be okay, he told himself. Ever since she had come into this world, she had always been destined to be okay. He was simply grateful the universe had allowed him nineteen years with someone so lovely.
"Go," he repeated, and with these words his knees gave out. His shoulder hit the floor first, and the pain shot through his collarbone. A wave of nausea rolled over him. It would be nice to close his eyes for a few seconds. There was warmth in the blackness he felt reaching up to grab at him.
James fought it for a second longer to glance one more time at Sara. Madison was pulling on her arm, frantically shouting that they needed to flee. Behind him he felt movement. He supposed it was Colonel Autumn. But he found the blackness flickering at the edges of his vision did not allow him to care or comprehend.
He slipped into the warmth and his thoughts, though growing less and less coherent, were drawn to the memory of Sara's birth.
Madison exclaiming, "It's a girl!"
Taking the tiny, squalling being into his arms for the first time and being so overcome with a wave of love and joy that he felt he would weep.
Sara, they had decided to call the baby if it were a girl.
Across the sea of warmth, there was suddenly a new sensation. He did not open his eyes. He did not want to see that damned airlock door any more.
A pair of hands were on him. He reached up to take them and immediately recognized their feel. A woman spoke to him. A woman whose voice he had not heard in nineteen years.
"You did so well, love. I'm glad to see you again."