Mutatis Mutandis – Chapter 40

Jackrum stared up at Brutus' throne the mutant king had set himself up in the basement of Project Purity. The floor was covered in detritus from the caved roof. Steel plates, chunks of concrete, bits of rebar and twisted barbed wire. Sunlight shone down through the enormous hole, illuminating the dusty air with a pool of sharp yellow light. The mutant's throne lay in the shadows just beyond. The place was silent, though a small amount of noise echoed from the city above.

It was quite peaceful, actually.

Footsteps clanked up behind him, heavy and officious.

"Jackrum, you're under arrest."

The old merc sighed and turned to confront Lieutenant Samantha Summers. She was pointing a plasma pistol at his head.

"What for?"

"You haven't given us the Wanderer yet."

"Heh. So go ahead an' take'im."

The woman glared at him.

"I thought not." Jackrum turned back to Brutus' throne. "You gonna kill me?"

"Take you in."

He stared at the empty throne. "And then?"

"Summers sighed. "Those are my orders, Jackrum."

The Merc spun around to face her. "Bad orders!"

"So what? Orders are orders."

They glared at each other. Jackrum noted that though the plasma pistol was steady in her hand, her finger was off the trigger.

"What exactly do you think walking outta here with me in chains'll do?" Jackrum asked, "My army is right out there, cleaning up the last of this mess. How did you even get in here?"

"Landed my Vertibird out front. People don't argue with Hellfire soldiers and Incinerators."

"In my experience, people will argue with anything."

"We'll win." She said confidently.

"Win what, Samantha?" Jackrum asked. He couldn't help the exhaustion creeping into his voice.

"Lieutenant Summers." She corrected.

"You win. You kill the last of the Wastelanders, and then the Enclave will be ruling a smelly deserted hunk of desert no different than any other. There'll just be you guys left."

"There's tech here to salvage."

"And then what? You run back and sit in your bunker?"

"We'll repopulate the country." She fired back. "I'm here to represent the United States of America."

"You need people to repopulate? With who? With what? You think you have enough people left? Don't you understand?" Jackrum's voice rose. He was angry, not just at the betrayal, but at the stupidity of the entire plan. "There is no United States of America anymore. Just the Capital Wasteland!"

"There are other people in other places." Summers said.

"And they aren't any different than we are! And I bet they'll be as unlikely to fold as we are! This is what I don't understand about you guys. You hate every last one of us, but you expect us to be grateful. You expect to rule and rebuild. You expect to govern. When you hate and kill everyone who isn't you, you're not a government. You're just another group of assholes who thinks fancy tech justifies everything."

"Not just tech. We have genetic superiority."

"Whoop-dee shit! It was the genetically inferior Wastelanders who won this fight, Samantha. We killed Brutus. If you ever want to rule us you're going to have to acknowledge that fact. Not arrest and kill everyone who was involved in planning it."

"I don't have to arrest you. I could just say you tragically died in the battle." Summers suggested quietly.

"Battle's already over. Besides," Jackrum nodded at her sidearm. "Mutants use plasma pistols?"

She stared down at the weapon, and then slowly lowered it.

"You may not think you need me." The Mercenary said. "Maybe you don't. Hell, I don't know. But I do know that you guys can't keep doing this every time you run across a problem."

She stared at him.

"Tell them you couldn't find me." Jackrum said, "Go home, Samantha."

Summers sighed and looked past him at the empty throne. "We're going to keep hitting you. You know that, right?" she sounded almost remorseful.

"Story of our lives."

"Good luck, Jonathon."

"You too, Samantha." He turned back pensively to the empty throne. Behind him, the enclave officer holstered her pistol and strode away.

The troop wandered single file down the steep side of the crater with Amata in the lead. At her shoulder was her father, Alphonse, surveying the surrounding town with a look of distaste.

Megaton had been trashed by the Mutant horde. All around them, wastelanders of all sorts were working in teams, lifting rusted metal plates into position and bolting them together. Rickety joists and welded metal rods held up scaffolding as workers covered and sealed up holes in the sides of the buildings all around the crater. The end of an aircraft was being raised high above them on a winch, and a cheer went up when, on the far side of the crater, the last bolt drilled into an enormous sign saying 'Gob's Saloon'.

Behind Alphonse were Susie Mack and Christine Kendall, two of Amata's close friends and advisors. Bringing up the rear was Brock the vault's teacher. They stepped carefully through the town's center, gaping at the nuclear bomb, and cringing at the puddle of radioactive water which had collected around it.

The Megaton residents barely spared the expedition from Vault 101 a glance as they worked. And when they did, the looks were hostile and derisive. Neither group had forgotten what it had been like living in such close proximity with the other. But they left them well enough alone.

The troop was directed up another staircase and into a multi-story building.

Inside was a long table lit with several small lamps. Several of Megaton's more prominent citizens were seated on one side. Moira Brown, Doc Church, Manya Vargas, the town's historian, Jericho the mercenary, with his feet up on the table, and Lucas Simms himself, seated with his legs spread wide and his arms crossed.

"Welcome to Megaton." Doc church said, rising to his feet and gesturing towards the empty chairs.

"Thank you for seeing us…" Amata replied as her entourage took their seats, "I appreciate that living together was difficult, but we're neighbors now and I'm confident that with time-"

"Fuckin' can it." Jericho barked. "Why should we help ya?"

"We can trade." Amata said. Simms rose from his seat and walked around behind it, showing disinterest.

"Really?" Doc Church was skeptical. "And what could you have that would interest us?"

"We have fresh water." Christine Kendall told them.

"So will we, after the purifier's repaired." Doc Church told them

"We have technology." Susie Mack suggested

"Oh, there's plenty of technology scattered around." Moira replied jovially, waving a hand. She giggled, "And it's not like we're short when the Wanderer shares everything anyway…"

"We have…knowledge. History. The wisdom of the old world." Brock, the Vault's teacher pointed out.

"We have our own history, dear." Manya said kindly. "It starts when the war ended. Not so sure there was so much wisdom worth keeping from before that…"

"We have a pure society. Pure genes." Alphonse Almodovar said proudly.

Amata groaned and put a hand over her eyes, "Oh, dad-"

"Take yer genes and stuff'em." Jericho the mercenary spat.

"We're in trouble." Amata declared. Everyone on Megaton's side of the table raised their eyebrows.

"Shush, Amata!" Alphonse ordered immediately.

"It's true-"

"We must negotiate from a place of strength!"

Lucas Simms, who had been silent up until that point said, "let the lady speak." His baritone voice, though quiet, carried across the room, silencing everyone else.

Amata stood up and addressed the whole table, "Things were bad before the Vault opened. We had riots. The machines were breaking down. Radroaches were getting in. And then… Jason… opened the door for good. Now we can't keep the wasteland out but that doesn't matter because…" she looked down in shame. "Because it could never have lasted anyway. And I – we… we're at the end of our rope. Dad says we need to negotiate from a strong position, but… we don't have one. We're lost. We're in trouble. And we don't know what to do."

Simms, was standing behind the line of Megaton citizens, uncrossed his arms and planted his hands on his hips. He said, "I need three words from you. The same three words all us surface dwellers asked the sky every day of our lives. We never got an answer… until the Wanderer came into town. Three words, kid."

Amata stared across the table at him, scared and humble. She said, "Please help us."

Simms smiled. "Now you're a Waster."


Fort Bannister was bustling with activity. Mercs ran back and forth, shoring up defenses, and arranging wasteland recruits. The Talon Company was now the defacto government, police force, and military of the Capital Wasteland, and young Captain Taylor, Jackrum's former assistant, was determined to see that their home base looked the part.

In the centre of the camp a ragged line was gathered. It contained a few mercenaries, and recruits from across the wasteland including Quinn and a few of his ghouls. The column was short but contained within it, everyone from the newest, greenest recruits, to a few of the Talon Company's best, most battle-hardened warriors. All of them had spilled blood and lost friends and family to the supermutant hordes.

Before them stood Elder Rothchild, Elder Glade, and Sentinel Kodiak, still in crutches.

"Welcome, all of you. Thank you for coming." Glade said, gazing at each sunbeaten face. For all their differences, the recruits shared one thing in common: square-jawed determination to do the right thing.

One of them raised his hand, unsure of herself. "Hi…"

"Yes?"

"This… this is where I sign up for the brotherhood of Steel, right?"

Glade and Rothchild shared a glance.

"The Brotherhood of Steel is gone." Glade said, wincing – but there was no getting around the truth of the matter.

"If we're being honest, we have not been part of the Brotherhood of Steel since we first set down roots here." Rothchild added, to general confusion.

"We're trying something new." Kodiak told the recruit.

"I took an oath to defend the Wasteland and its people to the death," Glade said, "as did Kodiak. We plan to continue. I would like you to join me. To join us."

"Do we get to wear power armour?" another recruit asked.

"Sometimes." Glade replied. "I'll teach you. But the former Brotherhood failed because of a reliance on technology. On the assumption it alone would save us. We need to fight smarter and move faster. This Wasteland needs Guardians. People who will stop at nothing to defend her. We will be an elite fighting force. We will train, day and night. I will teach you everything I know about advanced tactics and warfare and survival. Then I'll turn you over to the Wanderer and let him teach you what he knows."

"Then you will be loosed upon the Wasteland." Rothchild continued, "you will wander the width and breadth of our new country, righting wrongs and protecting her people, just as the Wanderer does."

Kodiak took over: "Too many people died to get us this far, but the fight isn't over. If we want to keep moving forward, we'll need the best of the best."

"That's going to be you." Glade finished. "Our mission is the defense of the Capital Wasteland. Defense through the preservation of knowledge. Defense through the advancement of technology. Defense through force of arms. We are the tip of the spear. We are the New Brotherhood!"


Jackrum left his Talon Company guards on the road, and climbed up the hill above Vault 101. As with everything else the past few weeks, he moved slowly. For the first time in Jackrum's memory, the wasteland air smelled clean and sweet. The world felt fresh and new. Alive and vibrant in a way he had never experienced before. The distant northern expanse seemed to have lost its tense, foreboding look. Now instead of danger it held possibility. Even now, the Talon Company was planning an expedition to the northern reaches to scavenge and collect supplies for the wasteland.

Off to the east, the crumbling ruins were silent. Devoid of guttural howls, and constant gunfire. Rivet City's teams were still sweeping, under the direction of the Brotherhood Remnant, but they hadn't found a mutant hardpoint in days. The city was safe, relatively speaking, and the treasures buried within finally within reach of the Wasteland. All of it would be put to use. To build, and plan for the future. The purifier had been brought back to life by the Wasteland's remaining scientists, clanking and groaning in protest as the Frankensteined machine poured gallons and gallons of fresh, clean, pure, free water into the Capital Wasteland.

The Wasteland had never felt like this before, and Jackrum moved slowly because he genuinely enjoyed taking it all in.

The Lone Wanderer was sitting at the graveyard. His new duster was between his spread knees, and his bandana was lying on the ground beside him. The Wanderer's green skin had faded back to his normal color, though Jackrum could still catch occasional hints of green in his veins.

The old mercenary crept closer as cautiously as he could, remembering that the last few times he and the Wanderer had seen each other face to face, the encounters had been less than friendly. Jason had even tried to kill him once, and he wasn't sure whether or not that intention had somehow vanished. The Wanderer didn't look like he was prepared for a fight. He was just… sitting there in the sunlight, with his back up against a gravestone.

The Lone Wanderer looked up as the merc drew near. Jackrum watched from behind as the kid tilted his head to the side, listening slightly. Jason's head looked very odd without any hair. It was already growing back, a faint blond fuzz which streaked white when it caught the sunlight in the right way. The Wanderer's chin looked a little too large, jutting out in an odd fashion now that the morass of long hair wasn't there to offset it. His head was awash with scars, mostly ragged, but one of them chillingly and deliberately surgical. The old mercenary could hear Three-Dog's latest broadcast emitting from a tinny speaker on the Wanderer's Pipboy, which Jason switched off as Jackrum approached him.

"I know it's you, Jackrum." The Wanderer said softly.

Dropping all pretense of stealth, Jackrum walked over to stand beside the Wanderer. "Hey."

"Hey." The kid's fingers played idly in the dry sand, digging a small hole.

"You uh… you still want to kill me for making a deal with the Enclave?"

The Wanderer shook his head, his fingers curling to scoop up a handful of fine sand grains. "No."

"I'm glad."

The Wanderer chuckled. "I bet." He looked up and met Jackrum's eyes. The mercenary was surprised to see tears running down the kid's face. He looked so damned young! How had the Merc never seen it before? The Wanderer couldn't have been more than twenty-five!

The kid said, "I've lost too many friends already."

"I'm sorry, kid. Any idea where our buddy in Power Armor is?"

"Narg? No. He just vanished…"

"That's a pity." Jackrum stared down at the Wanderer's dejected profile. Jason Howlett was slumped against the gravestone, knees spread and head hanging. He appeared, for the first time, to have finally run out of energy.

"What are you doing here, kid?"

"This is Sarah's grave." The Wanderer murmured.

"Who?"

"Blonde woman… Brotherhood of Steel…" Jason murmured. "I don't think you ever met her."

"Rings a bell." Jackrum admitted, thinking of the lynched corpse in Vault 101. "I'm guessing you two were close."

"I locked her in there…"

Jackrum sighed, digging a cigarette out of his pocket. "During this war we've both made decisions we regret, kid."

"Well yeah but you're just…"

"Just what? An old merc?" Jackrum asked, triumphantly fishing the cigarette out, "And you're just a kid. Perks or not you're just as human as me. You did your best and we won. The wasteland's still here."

"Not all of it!"

"More than would've been if you hadn't done your best."

"She's GONE!" Jason's voice rose as his anger flashed.

"Not your fault."

Jason babbled. "She didn't even want to go in there, you know. I broke our promise. I really thought things were…" he swallowed. "I thought things were going to change."

"Take a lot more than muties to really shake this Wasteland up."

"What do you think'll do it?"

Jackrum shrugged, patting his pockets again, hunting for a match. "Another you?"

"Ha."

Jackrum leaned forward, looking over the edge of the cliff above the Vault door. A few of the Megaton residents were there. A ghoul Jackrum recognized from Moriarty's Saloon. He had his arm around a red-headed woman. There was a second woman there, with platinum blonde hair. She was kneeling next to the Wanderer's dog, petting him happily and chatting with the other two.

"Who are they?"

"Gob, Nova, and Lucy West."

"Lucy?"

"She had family in Arefu," Jason said, fingers still playing in the sand, "Lost her parents early, and her brother died during a mutie attack near the start of the war. She's lost everything…"

The young woman looked up and spotted Jackrum's outline. She smiled and gave him a small wave.

"She's pretty…"

Jason flicked a stone at the merc's head.

"Ow. Just an observation, kid." Jackrum replied mildly. He wrenched a matchbook from underneath his chestplate and stepped back to light it, cupping the flame against the wind.

"She is…" the Wanderer admitted carefully. "And Dogmeat seems to like her."

Jackrum lit up the cigarette and took a slow puff. "Can I offer you a word of advice, Jason?"

"Sure." Jason let out a noise which might have been a chuckle. "I could probably use it, actually…"

Jackrum lowered himself onto a gravestone beside the Wanderer. He took his cigarette out of his mouth and said, "Just… make sure you're-" He gestured at Sarah's grave, making little smoke trails in the air, "- you're… over this. Before you start anything new. Give yourself some time to mourn. To… to decompress, you know?"

"We're just out for a walk." Jason replied dryly. "They were going anyway. They knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to come along…"

"Yeah, well… Sometimes that's all it has to be."

Off in the distance behind him he could hear a faint noise. The thrum of propeller blades. He turned backwards, searching for the source, and spotted three vertibirds on approach from the southwest. Jackrum could almost imagine the claustrophobic interiors of the flying machines, packed to the gills with power armoured soldiers. Near two dozen, by his estimation. Hellfire troopers, probably, with their squat, bulky profiles. "I think you should know that the Enclave's here."

"I know. I could hear the rotors a few minutes ago. They're after the FEV cure in my blood." The kid replied.

"I can't believe they're back again…"

The Wanderer twitched his duster aside to reveal a sniper rifle and his spike-flinging railroad rifle. "I let them know I'd be in the area. Thought I'd give them a tip this time. See what happened…"

"Jesus…" Jackrum shook his head as the infernal machines began their descent. It would be a few minutes before they landed. Longer than that before they attacked.

"I can't believe they want to do this at a gravesite." Jason's fingers once again found the soil above Sarah Lyons' grave. They traced random curly patterns in the sunburnt sand. "Never changes, does it?" he asked, looking up to stare at the northern horizon.

"What?"

"War. Violence. Fighting. We just keep going around in circles, doing the same damned thing over and over again…"

"Definition of insanity, Jason. That's the human race for you." Jackrum puffed on his half-burned cigarette.

"I got so tired of trying." Jason said. "I thought… I thought Sarah was a way out."

Jackrum said, "Did you guys at the vault ever go to Sunday school?"

"The Vault held church meetings in the classroom. I don't think I've believed since I was a little kid."

"Fair enough." Jackrum said. "But I remember growing up in Rivet City and listening to Father Joseph. Clifford was just his protégé at that point. He told a story about three brothers. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego."

The Wanderer stayed silent, staring at the distant northern horizon. Jackrum sank down onto the ground to sit beside him. "Anyway these three brothers traveled to Babylon, and were arrested for believing in the wrong religion."

"And were saved through some miracle or other…"

"Let me finish the story! The king had them thrown into a big hot furnace to burn to death. And he waited for a while."

"How long?"

"Couple minutes? Days? Who cares? How long does it take a man to burn to death?"

"Twenty-two seconds. On average."

Jackrum eyed his stoic companion nervously. "…Trust the Wanderer to know a fact like that."

Jason shrugged. "So what happened?"

"Well… at least twenty-two seconds passed, and the king opened the door again."

"And the brothers were fine."

"More than fine. There was a fourth guy in there with'em. An angel or something, I guess. They were all walking around and doing just fine. The flames hadn't touched any of them. The King let the brothers out, and they survived the whole thing and went on to lead happy lives."

Jason frowned. He turned, finally, and looked Jackrum straight on. "What about the fourth man? The one in the furnace? What about the angel?"

"I got no fuckin' clue, kid, but I always just thought he stayed there. Why get out? It's a pretty good gig, after all. Saving people."

Jason shot him a disbelieving look.

"Look, kid, war never changes. As long as people exist, there'll always be someone like Brutus, or President Eden, or Colonel Autumn, shoving us into the fire. We'll always need an angel, or a miracle worker. We'll always need the Lone Wanderer. Someone will, at any rate."

Jason looked back down at the grave, digging his fingers into the sand, and letting the grains run through his fingers. He had a thoughtful frown on his face.

"What are you gonna do after we're settled in?" Jackrum asked. Behind them, half a kilometer away, the Enclave forces were fanning out towards the Vault, and towards Jason.

"Head north for a while I think. Pittsburg, maybe. Would you mind escorting Lucy and her friends back to Megaton?"

"Sure thing. What's in Pittsburg?" the old mercenary asked.

The Lone Wanderer's face hardened. "A new gun. Brutus' Alpha broke my old one."

Jackrum snorted. He shook out his cigarette, rose to his feet and took a few steps back. He gave the kid's silent, mourning shape a quick salute. "Happy hunting."

The Wanderer reached down and grabbed his red bandana, folding it with practiced hands and tying it on around his head. "Yep. Stay alive, Jackrum."

"Will do." The merc wandered down the hill to rejoin his squad and meet the Megaton citizens. After a few moments, over the horizon behind them he could hear the distant sounds of energy blasts, interspersed with the sound of a steam whistle and a satisfying scream. He took a deep breath through his nose, savoring the smell of the wasteland air.

War, he thought, War never changes…


Finished!

So… how about that Fallout 76 then, eh?

Everything least worthwhile about Fallout 4 distilled, purified and concentrated to remove all elements which made Fallout interesting to begin with: Exploring a vibrant, living world.

I love this brand, but I really hope Bethesda learns a lesson from this: Characters and World first, Combat, loot and Collectibles last. Some games, some IPs just aren't built to be loot-a-thons. How did they get from Skyrim to this? Jesus Christ…