Children of Atom


Chapter 1

The girl picked through a steel box in the dank and the dark underground with nothing but her shoulderlamp for a light. A green glow that dimmed to mint after ten minutes and to nothing after a few more. The green light dimmed now and she twice tapped her shoulder. Instantly the lamplight brightened again. Her blackened fingers were cold in her fingerless gloves, the outside hole of the left glove the widest to allow for her ringpinky finger, fused since birth.

She lifted each item out of the box and placed it at a lean on the hobbled metal shelf in a row like penates or idols. Deaf little gods of a bygone world. A can of turpentine, WD-40, a tube of Wonderglue, a fission battery with a powdery residue on the terminal posts that she reverently avoided.

She sniffed from the cold that muted her sense of smell. Almost cold enough to see her breath. The bright light made everything green in the small storage room. Gunmetal walls. A dark fan of a water stain at the junction between the pipe and the wall. The desk behind her with the box-shaped computer monitor on it.

She tried the desk drawers. One was locked. The others contained nothing but a mushy pulp of paper on a rusty clipboard and a couple of bottlecaps which she pocketed. Again she tried the drawer she couldn't open. It was too cold to pick the lock. She pulled a flathead screwdriver out of her pocket, the shaft encased in plastic like petrified amber and a hole drilled into the handle. She took a stainless steel rod out next and placed the blade of the screwdriver into the lock and then threaded the rod a third of the way into the handle. Then she knelt over it with one hand on the shaft of the screwdriver to keep it in place and used what little weight there was in her petite frame to leverage the rod.

She held onto the end of the rod with her fist at her ribs and leaned into it hard. The lock broke with a clank that rang out into the dark. She put the tools back into her pocket and opened the drawer and found an unopened bottle of Nuka Cola that rolled against the metal side with a sound that echoed through the metro station. A thin film of grime on the bottle and the label faded and pealing, but a bottle of Nuka Cola all the same. She took off her canvas knapsack and undid the fastenings and stored the bottle.

When the girl emerged from the Jury Street Metro Station she squinted at the diffuse light and the blasted wasteland. Trees and shrubs charred and withered. Standing telephone poles with sagging wires marking off a crumbling highway. A bus capsized in the road, widowed of glass. A world brown and desert.

The junkmetal walls of Megaton towered over the rolling badplain and the girl reached them without incident, emerging from the waste with a lightness in her step and the bottle sloshing inside her knapsack. Walls of rust and scrap, at least twenty feet high, sections of dark diamond plate soldered and bolted together with corrugated steel and white airplane fuselage with the letters vanishing from sight and mind. IRWA. The girl wondered what sound each letter made.

Stockholm raised his hand in greeting like a monarch granting a boon where he sat on a deck chair from his sniper eyrie high over the gate as the girl came around to the entrance and then he lowered his hand back down upon his scoped rifle which lay across his knees. The girl raised her hand to him in return and walked right past the eggshaped robot, ignoring its monotonic greeting.

Welcome…home…Vela, said the protectron raising a claw, its yellow dome illuminating at each syllable. Like something out of an old B movie from back when the world was.

Within the surrounding wall, the settlement of Megaton was built inside the enormous crater of an undetonated atomic bomb, which lay at the bottom in a dirty pool of its own devising. The water brown and irradiated. Around the bowl of this crater, about four split-level tiers of scrap houses and shops jutted out over the void and were propped up by jauntyrigged stilts of iron with joints of steel, like wise men kneeling to pay homage to the infant bomb. The shops and houses all were joined by airy catwalks of rusted metal and precarious balconies.

As the iron gate shut out the wasteland behind and its dangers, Vela stood at the top of a series of stairs cut into the dirt and retained by repurposed railroadties leading down to the bomb and the lower shanties. She picked her way down the steps in casual strides.

Overhead, Gantry chased his sister over the catwalk, stomping upon the clanking metal and causing the structure to shake at their passing, both squealing with delight. On the other side of the crater on the topmost level, Mr. Hannidy was leaning on the railing with his hands crossed smoking a cigarette and watching her descend the stairs. He didn't wave until she waved, and even then he only lifted his cigarette hand at the wrist, then looked away. The atomic bomb got larger as Vela approached it, which but for its ballistic casing looked like a giant, black egg left by some nihilistic crow.

The girl came to the bottom step and passed under a string of G12 Christmas lights drooping over the gap between the corners of roofs just as all the lights of Megaton began to come on in the failing of the light. She turned left away from the bomb, which had not been an object of fear for generations, and sat down on a three-legged stool and put her elbows up on the wooden stand which Ms. Tracy used for a bar, covered by a roof that extended from the building itself. Next to her sat Mr. Flavintine in his accustomed place, silent, still, and swallowed up in folds of stinking robes and blankets. Vela always checked for signs of life when she sat down next to him.

With a dirty rag Ms. Tracy cleaned out a plastic cup that she had pulled down from an unseen shelf under the lip of the overhang and set it down before Vela without a word and poured boiled water into it from a hole in a cracked pitcher as if it had been made that way. Then she placed the glass in front of her and leaned on the stand with her hands apart.

Find anything new out there, hon? Ms. Tracy said.

The girl smiled at her and took a drink.

You did?

Vela began to pull her shoulder out of the strap of her knapsack when Ms. Tracy put her hand up to stop her and said, looking around, Well, hold on, what did you find? Neither of them looked at Mr. Flavintine, for from Mr. Flavintine the world had nothing to fear.

I found a cola.

Nuka Cola?

Vela nodded.

Quantum?

Vela looked at her for a moment and squinted in thought and then shook her head.

Well, that's alright then.

Vela swung her knapsack onto her lap and unfastened the flap and pulled out the bottle of Nuka Cola and stood it on the bar. Ms. Tracy picked it up at both ends and held it up to the hanging gaslamp to examine it in the manner of an unwillingly appointed appraiser called upon to check for impurities but not quite sure what to look for.

I caint see nothing wrong with it, but that dont mean there isnt. You gonna drink it or trade it?

What should I do?

What do you wanna do?

Vela thought for a moment. It seemed too important a decision to make without ample reflection.

What would it trade for? she said at last.

More than a little, less than a lot, said Ms. Tracy. What do you want?

Vela shrugged.

I guess you'll know when you see it. You could always drink it. You ever had one?

She shook her head.

It's got a peculiar taste to it. Like a bite to it. Fizzy. You ever had something that fizzled?

Like whiskey? Vela winced.

No, no, not like that. Not like that at all. You'd like it. It's sweet. It's got some rads in it, but no more than water does. Maybe less. I don't know, honey. I can't tell you what you should do.

Vela drooped her shoulders.

Tell you what. There's a trader just in today who's staying the night over. He's up at Moriarty's Saloon. Go see what he has, but don't tell him you've got anything unless he's got somethin you want and you've already made up your mind to trade for it.

Thanks, Ms. Tracy, said Vela, putting away the soda and sliding a bottlecap forward on the wooden bar lit now mostly by the gaslamp.

No, honey, I keep tellin you, you keep that. She slid it back.

It's okay, it's okay, Vela said, retreating without picking up the bottlecap. In rare form. The strings of electric lights and stationed gaslights made every night Christmas in Megaton. The girl passed the bomb pool on her right and hurried up the diamondplate slope opposite Ms. Tracy's and then up the yielding, metal switchbacks to Moriarty's Saloon.