Wandering the streets of Freeside was starting to become a hobby for Alex. While it wasn't quite boring enough to tempt him to take up crocheting, the rare glimpses of excitement it brought were few and far between. There were only so many people that needed killing, after all, and already the pickings were getting thinner.
The sun had set maybe half an hour ago. He had no idea what the actual time was – all the clocks he'd seen over the past few days had been frozen at about 9:45. That one had taken him a while to figure out. It was… difficult… to acknowledge that most everything he was looking at was over two hundred years old, especially when they came from an era that had been close to his own only a week ago. Objectively, he knew it was the case, but his memories told him that he lived in the twenty-first century – hell, he had hundreds of memories that had lived then. The two-century disconnect was hard to grasp even without the horrific connotations attached. But the scientists in him were quick to answer the question, once he realized that every clock he'd seen had predated the war. The nuclear bombs would have caused widespread electromagnetic disruption, frying all exposed electronics. In the case of the clocks, the blast had literally left a permanent record in time.
It was morbid, but Alex was well inured to death. All except one case, anyway – one case he prayed had taken place before she'd have gotten the chance to see those clocks stop.
He'd been avoiding the fort ever since he left. Odds were, Cain was long gone; it had been a few hours since he'd passed her off to Arcade, and surely she would have run out of breath at some point. But harassment by talkative people – especially intelligent talkative people – was high on his list of things to avoid, and he wasn't taking chances. The next time somebody started gabbing to him, it was a tossup on whether or not body parts started flying.
He was still getting used to how empty the streets were in Freeside – or maybe it was just a symptom of a post-apocalyptic world, not just the area. He was used to crowds that moved and flowed nonstop; shifting, roiling masses of humanity that flooded the streets like some living river. Now those streets were empty, and it left him feeling very exposed. No bodies to shelter him from view, no noise to drown out the echoes in his head. Hell, there was only one person in his line of sight right now, one of those King gang members – one person! In Manhattan, that kind of solitude was reserved for rooftops and alleyways, and helicopters and muggers respectively tended to ruin them at random.
His musings took a backseat to his instincts when he caught movement; the King was walking. This would have been perfectly okay with Alex, but the walking was being done towards him, versus myriad other perfectly reasonable directions the man could take that would not end with interaction. And from the way the King was glaring as he stalked towards the irritated monstrosity, he had something to say.
"Hey! Hey, you there!" he called, as if Alex Mercer wasn't the only other person in sight. "Don't move!"
Alex was very much considering doing just that, whether it be towards the man with a closed fist or away and onto the most stable rooftop he could find, but through gritty restraint, he kept himself still and tense as an unwound coil as the King approached.
"What do you want?" he ground out.
"Maybe you're new here. I haven't seen your face around before. So here's a friendly tip." The King's voice was anything but friendly. "We Kings rule Freeside. This is our turf, and we don't like it when people cause trouble."
Shit. "And what kind of trouble are we talking about?"
"A few days ago, some crazy nut went on a rampage or somethin'. Tore up the front gate completely – we had to put a bunch more guys out front to keep the animals out. Also knocked over a torch, caused a fire. Something gets broke around here, we're the only ones who get it fixed. So you can probably guess the Kings aren't too happy with this guy, yeah?"
"I heard about that." Alex tried to keep his voice neutral, but while he could pull a flawless act when he had specific memories telling him what to do, he had never been much of a convincing liar on his own. The myriad simulated muscles in his face were too confusing when he actually had to pay attention to them.
"Really? Because a little bird told me that that guy looked a lot like you."
He jabbed a finger at Mercer's face with the last word, and he had to restrain himself from lashing out and killing the man then and there.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yeah? I think you do."
"He doesn't," came a female – and familiar – voice.
The King turned; Alex whirled. If he hadn't been so engaged in the man he was arguing with, he probably would have heard two more sets of footsteps approaching. Only a little ways down the street was Cain, unmistakable in her long coat and hat. He blinked in surprise when he recognized the person behind her – he'd never seen Arcade Gannon outside of the Fort, save the first time they'd met. And Alex hadn't exactly been seeing too well then.
She strode up to the King, and Alex took the opportunity to take a few steps back.
"Well, lady?" The unnamed King didn't look happy at the interruption. "I'm sure you've got something to back that up."
"Alex here is with me," she lied smoothly. "Funny-looking guy, I know – I can see why you might have pegged him. But we're travelling together; he just took a break to go to the Wrangler, you know how it is. Are you ready to get moving again, Alex?"
"Uh." Shit, was he supposed to say something here? "Yeah."
"Good, we'll get going then. Well, I'm sorry, but you've got the wrong guy."
The King squinted. "Hey, you're that gal who's been helping around here lately, is that right?" At Cain's affirmation, he continued. "All right. I'll take your word for it."
Alex watched in total bemusement as the gang member went off down the street, grumbling. "Dang, just when I thought I could wrap this up…"
What the hell just happened?
Cain watched him go. In the darkness, she (sensibly) no longer wore her sunglasses – her eyes were a dark bottle green. They were starkly outlined on her face – at dusk, it was hard to tell if it was some kind of eyeliner or just the product of sharp shadows.
At last, she turned to the hooded man and raised an eyebrow. The outlines stayed – definitely eyeliner, then. "I take it that wasn't a friend of yours?"
Whatever viral goop served as Alex's brain floundered. Here. The talky woman was here. That meant run, and fast, before she attempted to bore him to death again. But she had also… not saved him, but done him a favor and averted a potentially messy situation, which meant he should be… grateful, or something. On the other hand, she was cunning enough to have an ulterior motive, so he shouldn't. Arcade was with her – had he somehow led Cain to him? For another interrogation? To force him to listen to her prattle on again? That could be a betrayal, which would end with him leaving them tangled in each others' entrails. But most important was the fact that Cain was within a thirty-foot radius from him and could start jabbering at any time. And his instinctive reaction to a prolonged conversation that did not involve weaponry, dismemberment, or useful information was the same reaction he had towards incoming artillery strikes – to get the hell away.
Run? Fight? Run? Thank? Fight? Intimidate? Run? Claw? Blade? Fight? Run? Fight? Talk?
His jumbled mess of thoughts somehow managed to offer up a coherent sentence.
"Why did you do that?"
Cain grinned cheekily. "You looked like you needed an alibi."
Alex was nonplussed. "Uh… thanks?" It sounded more like a question than a statement. "And I am not funny-looking."
Cain shrugged. "You're wearing three layers in the desert. And honestly? I'm sorry, but I've met Super Mutants that put on a friendlier air than you. Crazy, schizophrenic Super Mutants."
"See? That is exactly what I'm talking about."
Alex scowled more.
"Wait, that was you a few days ago?" Arcade stepped forward from his spot behind Cain, eyes wide with disbelief. "The gate was torn to pieces!"
"No," Alex said unconvincingly.
Cain clapped a hand on Alex's shoulder, ignoring the man's flinch. "Hey, what's life without a little mayhem? I don't judge. Really, I've got all kinds of stories…"
Alex ignored her, edging away from her arm. She made a face at him. "What are you even doing here, Arcade?"
Arcade startled at his voice. "Well, uh." He took a step backward, probably without meaning to – he clearly wasn't happy with having the conversation's focus turned on him. "Look, I, uh. You should probably know, I'm not going to be your doctor anymore. Not that you really seemed to need one, which was only a teensy bit suspicious for somebody I found half-dead in an alleyway." He was rambling, but Alex's eyes narrowed all the same. Why did he always run into the smart ones? Scrutiny was always a nasty thing, where he was concerned.
"But if you really have to, you can find another at the Followers. I already told Julie I was going and while she's not completely happy with it, she'll know what's going on and find you somebody else –"
"What is it?" Alex interrupted testily. Cain already talked enough for the two of them; Arcade didn't need to join in the party.
"I'm leaving Freeside. With Cain." Arcade's words were hurried and awkward, and they became increasingly defensive when Mercer didn't give a verbal reply and merely stared at him. "Damn it, don't look at me like that, I had to try - okay, look, how do I explain this?" He gestured harshly, impatiently. "I've been in Freeside for ages. Long enough to see that nothing's changed. And I like to think I'm doing some good deeds here, but am I? Am I really? Research that goes nowhere, fixing lives that come back broken a week later – as fun as it is to dabble in self-delusion, my life has been going in circles for years. And I want to go somewhere else. Maybe this is the best I can do. But I'm going to see more and do more before I settle for it."
Alex just shrugged. He could understand that, although it still struck him as pretty unexpected. The doctor waited for a response a few seconds longer, sighing and slumping his shoulders when none came. "Look, I had to try," he muttered. "Even if the means seem a little odd."
"What can I say? I get around. Never hurts to have an extra gun, either." Cain shrugged, then frowned slightly, looking to Alex. "Hey, about earlier. I didn't realize you had amnesia. I'm sorry for prying so hard."
Her voice was bright and utterly sincere. Alex didn't believe a word of it.
"How did you find that out?" he grated.
"Your doctor told me. It came up when we were talking. Hey," she added defensively, "if you want to look unassuming and uninteresting, don't run away when somebody's trying to talk to you. It raises questions. Personal experience speaking."
He shot Arcade a look. The doctor's irate look back read something along the lines of 'If you don't want me to give your personal details out, don't pass me off to an information-seeking juice press'.
Well, the damage had been done. If she had that much on him, he wanted the same leverage on her. "I know that you wanted to get out and do something else, Arcade," he said aloud. "But what exactly is she doing that you wanted in on?"
"Everything and everything, from what I gather," Arcade said dryly, at the same time Cain said "That is a long story."
"Then give me the short version." And for fuck's sake, no more tangents, he prayed.
"You have no idea how many times I've had to recite this," she muttered, rummaging around in one of her coat pockets. She fished out a cigarette pack and lit it with the contents of one of her other pockets.
"Cigarette?" she offered. At Alex and Arcade's shake of the head, she shrugged and put the pack back into one of her bags. "Hey, I'm not gonna complain. More for me."
She took a long drag, blowing the smoke up at the sky. "All right. I told you that I'm a courier. I wasn't lying about that, and that has definitely been my occupation for the past five months. ...No, I'm serious. Why are you looking at me like that? I take odd jobs across the Mojave. But I have to say, out of all of them, I wasn't expecting being a package carrier to end up being the most dangerous." She frowned. "Hell, it was a totally legit gig, too."
"Well, anyway, so I get this job to carry something to Vegas. Seemed like a strange deal to me – it looked like a casino chip, nothing that special – but the pay was good and I needed to stretch my legs anyway. Halfway there, I get ambushed by two Great Khan thugs and a guy in the most hideous atrocity of a suit I have ever seen in my life. Guy's name is Benny, I later found out. Head of one of the casinos in the Strip. He had me beaten, tied up, gave me some speech he probably practiced for about having an 'eighteen-carat run of bad luck' while his goons dug my grave," her voice changed to a mocking imitation, "then drew a nine-millimeter pistol and put two bullets in my head."
She lifted her hat. In the darkness, the gesture would have been futile, were he anyone else. But Alex could see the patch of shiny scar tissue near her temple where her red hair straggled around, not quite managing to look natural.
"But I guess he was wrong about the bad luck. That, or he's the worst shot in this side of the wasteland, because somehow he failed to kill a target who was bound, gagged, and lying prone on the ground two feet in front of him. Really, I don't know how you fuck something like that up." She lifted her hands. "Not that I'm complaining! I should have died, but somebody witnessed it and dug me up. It was apparently pretty touch-and-go for a few days, and there was a lot of Med-X involved, but the local doctor managed to get most the shrapnel out of my skull and put my brains back inside. So as soon as I could count my fingers and not get a number somewhere in the eighties, I set out to find this guy, settle the score, you know? And that's when my life got really crazy."
"How do you count your fingers and get to eighty?" Arcade was incredulous.
"Hey, they just kept… growing, okay? You're a doctor, Arcade, you should know that enough Med-X and anyone will start tripping harder than a Freeside junkie. Uh, no offense."
He sighed. "Actually, no. They trip exactly as hard as Freeside junkies, given that they're on exactly the same stuff. Med-X has rather popular non-medical uses. But do go on."
Alex said nothing, but inwardly, he was surprised – and a little impressed. She didn't look that hardy to him. She'd survived a bullet to the head? Granted, it was a nine-millimeter, not a .50, but that was tenacious all the same.
And vengeance; definitely the quest for vengeance. Now that was something he could empathize with.
"So I've been chasing down this Benny guy all the way from Goodsprings. The long way," she clarified. "All kinds of crazy shit on the way, too, but I'll save those stories for later. I want to return those bullets of his. He's been a few steps ahead of me the whole way, but I've got reason to think he's stopped in the New Vegas Strip. And he's kept me waiting long enough," she added darkly.
"Problem is," she sighed, "is that the Strip, being the giant tourist trap it is, only checks in people that have enough money to keep it afloat. You need two thousand caps to get into the Strip, and I only have about seven hundred." Irritated, she rattled her pack. "So I'm stuck here trying to scrounge up the rest."
"Caps?" Alex interrupted in disbelief, as the rest his findings clicked into place. "You use bottlecaps as currency?"
"Well, yeah." Cain shrugged, as though using useless bits of litter as a system of value was something obvious. "What were you expecting?"
"Dollars?" he offered weakly, without thinking. He silently cursed himself for the slip even as the word left his mouth. Yet another link to things he'd rather keep under wraps. Damn it all. Need to be more careful.
Now Arcade was giving him that suspicious stare again. Cain herself looked cheerfully unaffected, but from what little he knew of her, she'd probably caught it too. "Well, they used to use those strips of paper before the Great War, but the total annihilation by fire of society does tend to screw with those things." She fished a handful of the ridged discs out of a pouch on her belt and held them up for him to see. "So now we use these. Well, the NCR is trying to bring back paper money, but it's only accepted in their territory. Personally, I always ask for payment in caps."
"They just seem so… worthless," he frowned, looking at the handful of caps.
"And little pieces of paper aren't?"
He shrugged. He personally had never had a use for money, but he identified green bills with value and bottlecaps with stuff people left on the streets. "Paper is lighter to carry around."
"Yeah, and it gets ruined a lot easier too. Burns easy, tears easy, getting wet just destroys it… I'd know, I'm a courier. I do letters as well as packages. Man, there was this one time…" She scowled, putting the caps back. "Should have remembered what I was carrying, but I was so excited to see a lake that wasn't glowing green. The open desert is fucking hot, you know?"
She frowned contemplatively. "The swim might have been worth it, too, if it weren't for the lakelurks."
Alex, having no interest in getting wet or any idea what a lakelurk was, let the story pass over his head.
"So anyway, caps are a lot more durable. I've seen some of the old stuff. Some collectors will buy it, but it's pretty much worthless."
"Huh. Bottlecaps." He was going to have to get used to that one. "Anything else that looks like junk but isn't that I should know about?"
"Dinosaur toys," Cain said sagely. "Little plastic t-rexes. Grab every one you can find, they're worth their weight in gold bars if you can nab them."
Alex blinked. Hard.
"…Okay, what the fuck."
"Don't listen to her," Arcade sighed. "I'm pretty sure she's making that one up."
Cain pouted. "You're no fun!" She fished around in another one of her packs, lifting up a small plastic figurine of a cartoonish green tyrannosaur. "I have seen them before, though. Found this thing near Novac. His name is Teeny!"
Alex just stared.
"Anyway." She cleared her throat. "I don't suppose either of you know any work that needs doing? Because I'm running out of leads and I'm still thirteen hundred caps away from where I want to be, and quite honestly I'll take pretty much anything at this point."
"You've done everything big that needed to be done around the Fort," said Arcade. "There might be a few odd jobs from time to time, but nothing with that kind of money involved."
Alex merely shrugged. His strategy for making money, whenever he had a pressing need for the stuff, was to find somebody with it and take it from their dead body. Preferably somebody he wouldn't lose sleep over killing. But he had a feeling that that suggestion wouldn't go over too well, so he kept silent.
Cain didn't seem too heartened by this news. She frowned, taking a long drag from her cigarette. "There's nothing left to do here. The King said he might have work for me tomorrow, but he didn't even pay me last time. Jerk." She tapped her chin. "Guess I will have to leave Freeside," she sighed. "I didn't want to, but caps don't come from nowhere. I have a job in mind – there was a guy, some NCR researcher? He said something about there being a vault that had been doing some research on agriculture. Miracle work and all that. He was paying well for anyone that could go into the vault and get a copy of the data." She checked a bulky-looking device on her arm that he previously hadn't noticed. "The Pip-Boy says that Vault 22 isn't too far from here. A bit west, no more than a few hours' walk."
"A Vault, huh?" Arcade looked thoughtful. "They'd be stocked with Pre-War supplies – far better tools and instruments than you can normally find. I'll be interested in seeing what kind of research they have."
"Well, that settles it, then." Cain cast a wistful look at the distant Strip before turning around. "Vault 22 it is," she declared. "Arcade?"
The blonde man nodded. "I'm ready to go when you are."
Alex looked up. He'd almost forgotten that Arcade was leaving with this woman. The notion was… uncomfortable to him. It had nothing to do with actual attachment, he reassured himself – he didn't do friends. But Arcade was the only person in this world that he really knew. Him and maybe Cain, now. With… Dana gone – he had to force the words out mentally – suddenly, that felt a lot more severe. And now they were going to walk away.
He frowned. Should he…?
As if she could read his mind, Cain turned and grinned at him. "Are you just going to stand there all day or not?"
Alex started. Was she… asking him to come along? Teamwork was a new thing to him. Upon seeing him, most people tried to get the fuck away, not the opposite.
"That was an invitation, by the way," she hinted. "Always room for an extra gun."
Everything could go wrong. He didn't need companionship. He was strong enough to make his own way in the world. They offered him no meaningful support in a fight, whereas he could easily kill them by accident. Going along would provide numerous opportunities for his secrets to be laid bare, to drive Arcade and Cain away screaming and forcing him on the run again.
He made a snap decision. I am going to regret this later.
"Suppose I've got nothing better to do." He shrugged and turned to Arcade. "I was only hanging around the fort because you were there. If you're going to leave, I may as well follow you."
"Well, it's great to know you value my companionship so highly," Arcade quipped, "but as charming as you are, I'm really not into the whole stalker thing."
"I owe you for helping me back there," Alex said flatly. "Nothing more to it. I don't get attached."
"Woah, geez." The doctor held his hands up in surrender. "You've got your claws out today. I was just kidding. Christ."
Alex glanced down at his arms for a worried moment before remembering the figure of speech.
Cain watched their exchange, eyes glittering in the dark. "Well, glad that's settled!" she called cheerfully. She spun in place once before pointing up the north road, grabbed Arcade's arm, and marched up the street with the doctor in tow. "Onwards!"
Alex sighed and followed after her.
What the hell have I gotten myself into?
[Cain has joined your party.]
[Arcade has joined your party.]
[Achievement Unlocked! Make Some Friends!(15pts)-If you tilt your head and squint carefully enough, it kind of looks like you're capable of social interaction!]