Chapter 39 I am Alpha and Omega
Moira Brown twisted uneasily in her sleep. Something was disturbing her enjoyment of the dream she was having. It was the sort of dream that only someone of Moira's uniquely fertile creative mindset was likely to have … or to enjoy … so she was reluctant to awaken.
Yes, of course, a tickling stick! Enemies would be helpless with laughter, and could be finished off at leisure!
Moira was convinced that her most useful inventive ideas had come to her as a result of dreams. This would have been no surprise to those researchers who had somehow survived the bizarre and often horrifyingly dangerous experiments she had coaxed them into performing.
Her first thought as she was finally forced back into consciousness was how to test the freshly dreamt-up theory. The last researcher sent to investigate the mating habits of Deathclaws hadn't yet returned. But someone would be needed to find out which Wasteland creatures were the most ticklish. And, of course, just as importantly, which weren't ticklish at all.
Her next reaction was surprise that she had woken in the middle of the night, followed by annoyance. Someone was thumping heavily on her front door!
"But we're closed," she muttered to herself. This disturbance of her imaginative repose would not do. She must tell her bodyguard to convince the importunate caller to go elsewhere. In fact, she couldn't figure why he hadn't already done so.
Rubbing sleep from her eyes, she stumbled in semi-darkness towards the main room of the shop, immediately tripping and almost falling over something large and soft lying across the doorway.
Oh my goodness! In shock, Moira reached for the light switch.
"You! What are you doing here? Help! Murder! Thievery! Rape!"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold your horses, Moira! First thing, he ain't dead, just unconscious. Second thing, I ain't about to rob you; and third, I certainly ain't gonna rape you."
"Why else would you be here at this hour? You know very well we're closed!"
"For reasons I ain't goin' into, I couldn't wait till opening time. I need a great deal of spare gun parts and ammo. And I need 'em now."
"But you can't just walk in here and …"
"Well, I just did. Look, I'll pay you a ten percent bonus for your trouble."
Moira's commercial brain reasserted itself. "Fifteen percent. And this'd better not take all night."
"Okay, deal! So, do you happen to have any sniper rifle parts?"
Moira moved towards the counter. "I've just had a complete one delivered, in pretty fine condition with a dozen clips."
"Great, I'll take it! Now, there's something else you got hanging up there I was interested in."
"Oh this. Its unique and so's my price."
"Just name it and add fifteen percent."
Perhaps this isn't so bad after all. Moira regarded her unexpected customer with calculation. Scientific discovery often stems from happy accident. "I'll let the bonus go in this case. But I'd like you to investigate a little something for me. Have you ever thought about the healing power of laughter in people's lives?"
Katrina pulled Friska's head towards her own, joining their lips together in a deep but tender kiss. They sat naked side by side, leaning towards each other, so that Friska's left breast gelled and lightly rubbed against Katrina's right. She let her arm slide down so that she could caress Friska's other nipple, while the other hand was left free to rove over the soft skin of the young woman's nether regions, fingers beginning to stroke at the delicate, wet folds of her entrance, making her hum with delight. At the same time Katrina parted her own thighs wider, aware of an insistent nose rubbing at her exposed and open labia.
This gentler but no less erotic kind of lovemaking followed the more vigorous forms of fornication that had taken place directly after the ceremony. After they had brought her to series of violent climaxes, fuelled by the aphrodisiacal energy unleashed by the religious rites, Katrina had dismissed her Holy Whores, apart from the dark-haired, doe-eyed Friska, and a muscular, blonde Raider called Sif.
Katrina appreciated the contrast between Friska's softness and Sif's strength. Together they were helping her to wind down into a more relaxed and mellow mood. As Friska's tongue slid lightly against her own, and Sif's began to delicately brush her outer lips, Katrina's mind was left free to wander, her thoughts less on the women present and pleasuring her, than those absent and unable to do so.
She felt surprisingly lonely. Since Lorel's death, there had been no one amongst the Raiders she was close to, or on whom she could rely. From political necessity, she'd had to appoint Raiders from other tribes as her immediate lieutenants, mostly those who had served in a similar role, under leaders now dead for refusing to accept the new faith. As of custom, she'd mated with several, but it had taken place without any real warmth.
Her thoughts turned in response to her newest friends, and made the inevitable imaginative leap of what it would be like to have them here with her. She was aware of the strength of feeling between Arta and Clover, though her cynical mind could dream up a scenario where they would separate. She wondered if Arta had entirely thrown off her strong attraction for her father, Jericho, despite his perfidious betrayal. And should she succumb to him again, Clover had the kind of fiery nature that would not easily forgive. She would fall straight into my arms if I asked. Katrina relished the idea of having the ex-slave all to herself, but her present fantasy was to enjoy both lovers together at once. Who could say that they wouldn't agree to that in reality?
Instead of Friska's soft brown eyes, she imagined looking deep into Arta's compelling blue ones, kissing her wide, full lips and the generous curve of her well-shaped breasts, drinking in her fresh and youthful innocence. Suiting her actions to her fantasy, Katrina dipped her head to suckle on the impudent perkiness of Friska's tits, and when she thrust her fingers deep into the warm tightness of the young Raider's womb, it was the woman from the Vault whose frantic moans she thought she could hear.
At the same time she replaced Sif's sturdy frame with an image of Clover's exotic and seemingly fragile beauty, making herself believe that it was the blonde's small nose and delicate mouth that were slyly teasing her sweet spot. Closing her eyes to visualise her two dream lovers greatly increased the erotic sensations she was experiencing, especially when Sif reached up to circle the hardened tips of her nipples. Feeling herself approaching her peak, she made an urgent gesture. Obediently Sif abandoned her ministrations, and reached for a long flexible rubber tube, carefully inserting it between Katrina and Friska. Thrusting their bodies together to mutually impale each other, their groans and gasps were in time as they built towards almost simultaneous intensely satisfying climaxes.
Oh you little beauty! Katrina opened her eyes again to see Friska alike gasping and running with sweat, her eyelids half-closed and lips parted in a dreamily fulfilled expression. The end of the old train car they were in was ripped open to look out onto a wilderness of devastation.
I wish they could really have been here. But in a way, they were.
She dreamed once more of the future, a future in which she was to play a leading part. But this time there were no personal battles, no long roll of enemies slain. Instead she seemed to be witnessing the unfolding of a history she herself had brought about.
From the sands of the Wasteland an army arose, with dark banners fluttering in the dusty wind, black crossed with a slash of flame. Raiders fought Raiders, and blood drenched them and ran into the ground, and the corpses in their multitudes lay bleaching in the sun. Slavers lay amongst them, and ghouls, and the slaughtered remains of the mutated creatures of the Wastes. And out of the sunset, the Supermutants came, with clubs and rifles and miniguns, marching, marching, in hoards to which there seemed no end.
She saw the Citadel, and the dark banners flew from it also, and from its gates came another army, smaller but clad in metal of silver-grey. In its van strode a robot the size of a tower. Flying machines flew over and around it, only to be blasted from the sky and dashed to ruin. The Potomac was bridged, and then the causeway to the Jefferson Memorial, and before them lay barriers of shimmering energy, and soldiers with helmets like the faces of demons. But the robot and its followers smashed through them all, and planted their black banners against its walls. The war cries and shouts of victory rose to the heavens. For Elder Lyons and the Angel of Death!
And then the perspective changed again. She felt she was inside the building, not in the flesh, but as an invisible, ethereal presence. She drifted along darkened corridors and abandoned chambers, seeing all around her dust, decay, ruin and neglect. Yet here and there were signs of habitation: braziers or barricades build for some defensive purpose. As her bodiless form flitted further into bowels of the Memorial, she yearned to see or hear someone living, to make her feel less like a helpless ghost, but there was only a succession of passageways and rooms and stairs descending far beneath the earth
At last she came to a chamber in a shadowy sub-basement, as barren of life as all the rest. Dust lay thick on a metal examination table, and a tray of surgical instruments. The monitoring equipment had long ago fallen silent.
A voice, calm and measured, spoke out of nowhere.
It was here you were born.
Suddenly there was a blinding flash of light. It was followed straight away by the sound of a baby crying, and the steady pulse of a heart monitor. The room had changed. The strong illumination showed up gleaming, well cared for equipment and the faces of the two people standing in front of her.
One was her father, wearing a surgeon's mask, cape and gloves, with Dr Li beside him, in her white lab coat. The years seemed to have dropped away from them, and they loomed over her, as though they were very tall, and she was very small.
She heard her father say, "We've got a daughter, Catherine, a beautiful baby girl!" He sounded happier than she could ever remember.
The voice that came next stirred her emotions like nothing else could. Melodious and overwhelmed with intense feeling, it had haunted so many of her dreams.
"Oh, James, we did it! A beautiful daughter!"
Arta tried to shift her vision to take in the speaker, who seemed to be right beside her, but was unable to do so.
Her father bent down towards her. "Hello there, little one. It's your daddy here. Daddy. You've got a bright future ahead of you, don't you know? Daddy's gonna take care of that. I wonder what you'll be like …"
The wonderful, lilting tones of her mother: "James do you think we should call her … James, I feel … James!"
NO, this can't happen, don't take her away from me so soon!
She heard her father, sounding horrified. "She's going into cardiac arrest! I'm starting resuscitation. Madison, get the baby out of here!"
No, please! I don't want to go! MOMMA!
The white light flashed again, and the room returned to darkness and silence.
She was drifting upwards, this time faster, sliding through walls and ceilings like a phantom. Back through a hallway with a broken pillar and a brazier burning. Onwards and through a doorway which felt as though it was the point of no return.
She was once again in the room with the soaring, domed ceiling, intersected by luminescent pipes, the squat, processor unit in the midst of it.
A voice, cold and sibilant:
It is here you will die.
With another flash of light her vision and awareness changed.
Soldiers of the Brotherhood surrounded her. She herself was no longer bodiless but wearing a suit of black armour without a helmet. It felt surprisingly light and easy.
At her feet, a corpse was stretched out, clad as she was, except for the black horned helmet of an Enclave trooper, partially melted as though by intense heat. Close by she saw Sentinel Kodiak, slumped on the floor, eyes shut as if he was sleeping. A Brotherhood knight was kneeling to examine him, while others were tending to one another's wounds.
A small stairway led up to the thick bulkhead door she remembered from the dream in which her father had died. At the top of it, Knight Captain Dusk had removed her helmet to speak into an intercom.
"It's Dawn, Madison. Kodiak's dead but we've secured the main control room. What the hell's happening?"
From the intercom came the voice of Dr Li: "The purifier must have been damaged in the fighting. It's going to overload, unless it's activated immediately to disperse the energy. Somebody has to start it up, but the area's still heavily saturated with radiation."
"Okay, we're on it." Dusk turned to face her, Cupid's bow lips compressed tightly. "Look, I didn't want it to end like this, but someone's got to go in. And it seems like they aren't coming out again. We have to decide who, and damn quickly."
Arta heard her own voice, coming as if from far away.
"Why don't you do it?"
And then immediately, as though it were a kind of echo:
"I'll do it. I'll go."
Dusk paused, looking at her with awe in her eyes. "Seems like there's no getting between you and your destiny. Thank you. The Brotherhood and the Wasteland will always remember. Quick put this on."
Sights and sounds diminished as a bio-helmet was lowered onto her head. She felt herself climbing, her feet clanking on the metal steps. The bulkhead door slid aside, and she was in the control room, hearing Dr Li's voice:
"You'll only have seconds, hurry!"
Every step forward required an effort. The console at first seemed impossibly far away, and all the time her pipboy clicked, faster and faster. Heat rose and smoked from her boots as they touched the floor. But now the control panel was near, close enough to see the numerals on the keyboard. And it was in her mind that the activating sequence was two one six.
Revelation 21:6: I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the Water of Life freely.
She reached the panel, and began entering the numbers. The whine of the processor increased, along with the heat shimmer.
Is this how it ends? Or how it begins?
She looked down at her pipboy reading. The radiation count flashed blood red.
You can't die in a dream.
She pressed the activating button. An intense vibration followed, and the water in the cylinder before her swirled, clearing away the murk to reveal the statue of an august figure dressed in an archaic style. As the purifier started, and the Waters of Life began to flow, the outlines of Thomas Jefferson's face and those of the world around her blurred into one final, glorious light.
It is finished. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
It was the cold hour before dawn. The Raider army was mobilising, quietly going about the tasks of packing weapons and supplies before marching. There was an air of tension about Scrapyard, a sense of expectancy, as though each man and woman present understood that a great undertaking had begun.
Watching them Katrina felt a shivering, adrenalin-generated thrill. It was all under her control now.
"You are in charge," Arta had said to her. "It doesn't matter if I'm not there, because you will be. Act as though the Angel of Death is present."
She's given me a chance to attain almost goddess-like power. What can I do with it? What can I NOT do with it?
Belief in that dark nemesis meant the Raiders here obeyed her without question. Soon, very soon, that would be true of every Raider in the Wastes. A vast, unified army that would follow her commands even if she asked them to march into hell itself. The objective Arta had chosen for them wasn't so far removed from that in difficulty, even if they weren't expected to achieve it on their own.
Katrina wondered what Leo would think if he knew of the final phase of the plan. The Supermutants would indeed be given a chance to live in peace. The hope was that a member of their own race could persuade them this was the best choice to make. It was a pious solution but one that Katrina couldn't envisage happening. And there was but a single alternative if they refused. Humanity united under one banner, the banner of the Angel of Death, would wipe them from the face of the earth.
All in Arta's name. But Katrina would hold the reins of power meanwhile. And what if Arta died?
Yes, what would happen if she died?
It could happen in one of a thousand ways: the lethal sting of a Radscorpion, a hammer blow from a Supermutant, a slash from the claws of a ghoul or Yao Guai, a dagger to the heart from an assassin, a bullet to the brain or the blast of a grenade; even a simple fall from the rocks. Such was the fragility of life in the Wastes.
And then … Katrina felt deep in her soul that this thing Arta had started would carry on, somehow. It would go on through those who believed in her, stronger than before, more powerful than if she were still alive. For the people of the Wastes would say that the Angel of Death had descended from heaven, and returned again from whence she had come. And when perils came, and their faith grew thin, they would look to the sky and remember. The living would ask her for courage and strength and mercy, and the dying for resignation and release.
The legend would never die.
She dreamed that she was walking through the wastes with Arta. The land around was rocky and bare, with no life to be seen save the odd Radscorpion scuttling along in the distance. Ahead the cliffs formed what seemed an impassable barrier. They came to a halt beneath the frowning crags.
Clover noted for the first time that Arta was wearing the simple robes of a Wasteland wanderer.
"What are we doing here?"
"This is the Edge of the Wastes. You can't follow me any further. Not yet anyway."
"Why? Where are you going?"
"I must return to my father. My work on earth is done."
"What are you talking about? How the hell's it finished? And James is still at the Memorial, isn't he?"
"He is … and he isn't. For you this is the future … one possible future, I should say. The fate of the Wasteland has already been decided. We're beyond the Third Day."
"The Third Day?"
"Look it up in the Bible. Or just accept that all time is relative."
"Don't start talking like Leo! And in any case, if time is relative then how …"
"There's no point trying to reason it out, Clo, you can't. The fact is, I'm leaving. And I was referring to my other father." She smiled. "You know 'Our Father which art in heaven;' all that stuff."
"So you are the Angel of Death after all?"
"Say rather that I've become it. Through fulfilling the dreams of people like you."
"Does that mean we've created you?"
"In part, yes. I started as a speck in a womb. Then I became plain Artemesia Wendell from Vault 101. A naïve girl who didn't know a Mirelurk from a mop." Without being aware of when the change had occurred, Clover realised Arta was wearing a blue and gold Vault jumpsuit.
"Bullshit! You were never plain anything. No one else could have done the things you have, the way you did them."
"Perhaps you're right. I might've been uniquely suited to the role I've taken on. But it needed more than that. Including some huge slices of luck." With the same seamless transition, she was wearing her black combat armour.
"Luck! More like some help from the big guy up there!" Clover paused, then added under her breath, "Respect and all that, big guy."
"Whatever you want to call it. I'm just pointing out that it wasn't only me. No one, no matter how talented, can achieve anything alone. Not even the Lone Wanderer."
"I guess that's true. And you know, though you've changed in a whole lot of ways, the inner you is the same. You're still the person that I loved … that I love now."
"Poor Clover! I hope you can remember me just the way I was. But there's gonna be one final change. There. What do you think?"
Clover said tentatively, "To be honest the eyes are a bit spooky. Gold isn't a natural colour for them to be."
"Sorry about that."
"But …" with determined cheerfulness: "the wings are real nice … they kinda suit you somehow."
"Thank you. I expect it'll take me a while to get used to them."
"Will you need them to …"?
"No, it doesn't work like that."
"The light … it's getting brighter … it's beginning to hurt my eyes!"
"Yes, that's because I'm about to leave."
Tears running down her cheeks, Clover cried, "Please! Must you go so soon?"
"I'm afraid I have to. Good-bye. But remember … angels live forever in the human mind. I'll be with you … always."
Arta woke. After the little oblivion that was sleep to wake again seemed almost a relief. She looked to find Clover already sitting up, bars of morning light striping her features, watching her closely.
"Did you have a rough night? You twisted and turned a lot in your sleep, sometimes cried out."
Arta inhaled deeply. "I'm fine, I slept well enough. It's only that I dreamt of my birth … and my death."
"That's … unusual. Both together."
"I suppose it is."
"I had a strange dream about you too. In it you …" Clover hesitated. "Arta, will we be together always? I mean forever."
"Forever's a long time."
There seemed no more to say after that, and they began their preparations for leaving.
Chief Scribe Rothchild stepped onto the porch of Burke's house and breathed in the early morning air. It still retained a dusty, almost metallic flavour, with more than a hint of brahmin dung. He eyed the hodgepodge of structures around him, and the few gaunt-looking Wastelanders who'd bothered to rise at the crack of dawn, and sighed. Such a pity that jackass of a scientist had somehow managed to defuse the bomb! The fellow from Tenpenny Towers who'd wanted to blow the whole rotten, degenerate pile to kingdom come had certainly had the right idea.
Most of the Brotherhood's woes stemmed from the time when they, or more precisely, Owyn Lyons, had begun to care about the miserable, criminally inclined denizens of the Capital Wasteland. Offering protection to them from the Supermutants had ultimately resulted in these same debased louts being recruited into the Brotherhood's ranks, as it struggled to cope with the demands of an unnecessary and distracting war. The effect that such mutated strains of so-called humanity might have on previously pure blood lines could only be guessed at, but it was hardly surprising that the unity of the Brotherhood had been shattered.
He tried to put a more positive spin on this depressing meditation. Perhaps it wasn't too late to reverse at least some of the damage. If the Outcasts could return as planned … his thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a singular looking group descending the steps into the crater. The young woman from the Vault was accompanied by her female companion and the hulking Supermutant. Rothchild found the sight and smell of the creature disgusting, but had to admit that its erudition and eloquence could not be denied. And if there was even a chance it could divert its fellow mutants from their aggressive course, that option must be explored. However the whole enterprise was fraught with perils. As the ill-assorted trio drew nearer, obviously heading in his direction, Rothchild mused on the unlikely characteristics of the woman in the eye of the storm.
She had previously given the impression of being a pert and charming young ingénue, with naively good intentions towards everyone. An impression that was surely intended to mislead. Only someone with formidable political and military acumen could have so artfully managed events in Megaton, while at the same time recruiting an army from such an unpromising source as the Raiders of the Wastes. And even allowing for the distortions of rumour, she appeared to be a combateer of exceptional skill, bravery and endurance. Clearly a very dangerous woman. But the Brotherhood seemed to have no choice other than to ride the tiger and hope it didn't turn on them.
She mounted the wooden steps and gave him a disarming smile, following it with a little yawn and a stretch.
"Good morning, Chief Scribe."
Rothchild twitched involuntarily. Someone of his age shouldn't be affected in this way, but somehow the idea of pertness wouldn't leave his thoughts. That jumpsuit was far too tight.
Trying to throw off his distraction, he said brusquely, "It's commendable that you've arrived so early, although I fear that not all the delegates at the conference will be as punctual. The slavers, for example …"
"On the contrary, I've come to tell you I won't be attending."
Rothchild's jaw dropped. "You won't?"
"No. I leave for the Citadel within the hour."
Floundering, he stammered, "But … this is … disappointing and … irregular. Who will provide a focus for our discussions … a mediator? As the one who initiated this process you must surely …"
"I've brought you a more than capable replacement." Her terse, straight to the point statements were keeping him totally off balance.
"And this person is …?
"Right here next to me." Arta tossed her head in Leo's direction.
Rothchild gaped again, "Him?"
The Supermutant looked down from almost twice the Scribe's height, and spoke mildly. "I am humbled to be chosen, but welcome the opportunity to serve the Wasteland with due diligence."
Her eyes fixed firmly on Rothchild, Arta said sharply, "Can you think of anyone better qualified to be an impartial mediator?"
He swallowed nervously. "I … I suppose not."
"Good. I leave you in Leo's capable hands." She turned on her heel.
Rothchild at last managed to regain something of his usual poise.
"Wait. If your destination is the Citadel, then it behoves me to provide you with a suitable escort. It so happens that Knight Captain Dusk personally requested that her squad be allowed to accompany you."
Arta hesitated. "I've other companions to guard me."
"Perhaps. But surely an offer of Brotherhood protection should not be so lightly turned aside?"
"Very well. If your escort is ready by the time we leave, they're welcome to come with us."
Rothchild watched her walk away, trying unsuccessfully to avert his eyes from the movements of her body within the jumpsuit. Definitely too tight! He drew a long breath. His fears that she might be difficult to control had been more than justified. Possessing as he did an extensive knowledge of pre-war history garnered from the Brotherhood's archives, he could see a parallel with a young woman from Lorraine who more than eight hundred years ago had liberated her country from English invaders, supposedly with divine assistance. But her own supporters had abandoned her when she fell into enemy hands, and she was burned at the stake. In the end, not even her friends could tolerate someone who claimed to have a hotline to God.
He wondered how many would find it a similar relief when the Angel of Death made her final exit.
As they walked up the slope, Clover asked, "Do you think Dusk really volunteered to come?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Regardless Rothchild will want someone keeping tabs on us."
"Why accept his offer then?"
"Because they'd follow anyway. At least this way we get their help too. And once I tell Elder Lyons what Rothchild's about, his little schemes will be finished."
"Lyons might not believe you."
"At the very least he'll keep a careful eye on Rothchild's activities. That should be enough."
"True, although that means the Brotherhood will remain divided."
"Unfortunately it probably will. But that's preferable to it becoming dominated by those with a narrow, technologically obsessed focus. I think Lyons wants it to be something more. I'll find out for sure when I meet him."
They turned off the main path to the one leading to their house, then stopped abruptly.
Jericho was lounging at a table on the terrace outside the door, looking as relaxed and cocky as Arta could remember, a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of whisky in the other. Beside him was an open knapsack packed tight to the top with bullet clips and grenades. Two rifles, a Chinese Assault and a sniper, were lying on the table. Both looked as though they'd been newly repaired and upgraded. Arta also noticed a folded blue bundle, on which the numerals 101 could be discerned.
Jericho squinted into the bright sunshine, his teeth bared in a broad, fixed grin, appearing to watch them sidelong. He stuck the cigarette into the corner of his mouth, and gripped it tightly between his jaws.
No one spoke for a moment. Then Arta folded her arms.
"Come to pay your respects to your new neighbours?"
Jericho made no reply, but his grin managed to stretch even further until it was practically splitting his face.
"I see you've been doing some shopping," Arta observed with a deliberately casual air.
Jericho spoke with the cigarette still clenched. "Yup. Paid a visit to Moira's last night. Always drives a hard bargain, but the product's usually worth it." His tone was equally nonchalant.
"Planning on a trip somewhere?"
He chewed on the stub, then pulled it out. "As it happens, yeah. Ain't been down to Rivet City for an age. Seem to remember some little whore runs the bar, always good for a fast roll in the hay. Well, more like a quick bang in the bilge."
Clover began, "I hope you don't think you're tagging along …" but Arta signalled for her to be silent.
She said, "You know, don't you, that Katrina's not coming with us?"
"I gather she's alive and more than kicking. I don't suppose you're gonna tell me where?"
"No, I won't do that unless she asks me to."
Jericho shrugged. "Then I guess for now it's a sailor's life for me."
Arta gave a stifled laugh. "What makes you think we'd let you back in our party?"
"I ain't asked to be in it."
"Don't you shit with me!"
He looked at her square on. "You know what I bring to the table. And if you're gonna check out the Memorial for your dad, you'll need every ounce of firepower you can muster."
Clover burst out, "How the fuck does he know about Jefferson? I only found out myself last night!"
"Easy Clo'," Arta soothed. "It's obvious who told him. Butch."
"Another little cocksucker I knew we couldn't trust! Arta, I can't believe you'd even contemplate …"
"Hush up one moment." Arta addressed Jericho. "I hope you realise this'd be your final chance. Try any more tricks like the last one, and I'll kill you myself."
Jericho chuckled. "Put me on point. Then you can check out my arse whenever you like."
"I'll do that."
"Arta!" Clover roared.
Arta gripped her shoulders and spoke calmly. "Look at it like this. He's come through for us more times than he's let us down."
"And next to you and Leo, he's the person I'd most want to be guarding my back. It's like there's your right hand, and then there's your left."
"Which am I supposed to be?"
"C'mon!" Arta drew Clover unwillingly to her, placed a soft kiss on her cheek. "You know which. Let's go get Bryan and Butch, and our gear." To Jericho. "We'll see you at the gate in half an hour or so."
He saluted. "Sure, capitan. Meanwhile why don'tcha take a look at that?" He indicated the blue bundle. "Got it with you in mind."
Arta picked up the garment and shook it out. "Moira's amped up Vault suit? Its nowhere near as good protection as combat armour."
"No, but it's a hell of a lot lighter and more flexible, even than Raider gear. Plus I've added a few mods of my own that'll make it stop rounds at least as well as their stuff. And last but not least every two bit mercenary and Raider that's heard of the Lone Wanderer's gonna crap their pants when they see it."
"Maybe I'll wear it as far as the Citadel then. Its light enough to carry as a spare."
"I know what it feels like," Clover growled.
Jericho sniggered. "Aw, don't be like that, we'll be sure and find you something to do! Oh, that reminds me. Moira wants us to carry out some dumb-arse research in exchange for the suit."
"Again? The last time I tried she refused to pay up."
"Well this time we got it in advance. And anyways there's a simple solution. Tell lies."
"What kind of lies?"
"Tell her Deathclaws and Mirelurks are a barrel of laughs."
The Armoured Vault Suit had been lined with Kevlar, and reinforced with metal at the vulnerable points. It still retained lightness and fitted Arta in a manner that was flatteringly snug.
Butch raised his hands in mock worship. "All hail! The Lone Wanderer goes forth! In a suit of extreme hotness!"
"Let's hope the bullets and bombs will be as impressed," Clover said sourly.
Admiring herself in some polished glass, Arta said, "At least I'll be able to get out of harm's way faster."
"You look very smart indeed, madam!" Wadsworth boomed enthusiastically. "Dressed to kill, in fact!"
"Don't overstrain your humour array!" Clover added, in a low voice.
"Thank you, Wadsworth!" Arta took a last look round her new home, wondering if she would ever see it again. "I trust you'll have added those new fittings by the time we return."
"Naturally madam! May I say I thought the Love Machine theme was most tastefully chosen. And, of course, I'll be sure and tidy up while you're away."
Bryan asked, "We're really leaving at last?"
"Yes, Bryan." Arta took the small boy's hand. "The big adventure starts from now on."
In the end our departure's rather later than the crack of dawn. And so we have quite a large farewell committee to see us off. With some expected and unexpected members.
Arta stood outside the main gate of Megaton with her companions. Below and to the northwest, the new city of tents spread towards the ruins of Springvale, some even nestling beneath the ridge concealing the entrance to Vault 101. It was another fine morning in the Wastes, the baking heat having not yet begun, the golden glow of early sunlight still investing the landscape with its deceptive tinge.
She gave her weapons: sniper rifle, smg and shiske sword, a final check, while watching the crowd that had gathered to witness the Angel of Death depart. Leo was there, of course, with Scribe Rothchild and Sentinel Kodiak. The scribe was giving final instructions and admonitions to Knight Captain Dusk and the two paladins forming her escort. It looks like a scene from the remote past or legend, with the priest bestowing his blessings on the quest knights. Leo more closely resembled the monster standing in their way, though Arta had begun to read his expressions well enough to perceive an expression of tender concern at the departure of his niece and, she hoped, herself.
Sheriff Simms was also present to wish them well in his capacity as mayor, but she was surprised to see Sonora Cruz and Jenny Stahl alongside him. Sonora seemed to have a sparkle in her eyes, which made Arta wonder whether Simms had taken her advice. But Jenny hung around him with a possessive air, and the two women noticeably avoided each other's eyes. What on earth is going on there? Arta was sure Jenny had no reason to wish her a fond farewell. I wonder if she ever got Moira's food sanitiser to work properly?
The eccentric owner of Crater Side Supplies hadn't chosen to turn out in person, but plenty of her products were in evidence. Butch, and even Bryan, was carrying bandoliers of spare magazines, and the former had acquired a broad brimmed hat to go with his shades, Tunnel Snakes jacket and denims. Jericho and Clover had possession of a veritable arsenal of bombs and bullets, though the looks between them were combustible and explosive enough on their own.
Perhaps that will make what I have to do easier? But Arta still quailed at the thought of the decision to come. Seeking distraction, she scanned the onlookers for more familiar faces, and picked out Nova. When the mistress of Gob's Bar and Grill realised she had caught Arta's attention, she stepped forward.
"We've not always had the best of relationships, but as you're going, I'd like to offer my thanks for what you've done for Megaton. And especially for bringing back the music of Galaxy New Radio. If Gob were still alive, he'd have really appreciated that."
Arta said, with genuine warmth, "And I'd wish for him to be here and able to listen to it."
Nova nodded, then said in her most sultry tones, "Whenever you're in town, you can always drop by."
The arrival of the Brotherhood escort, their briefing over, interrupted the conversation. Dusk was wearing full power armour with a bio-helmet, but was instantly recognisable from her direct manner of speech.
"We're ready to go."
Arta said formally, "I'm honoured by the presence of the Brotherhood. I believe you volunteered for the assignment."
Dusk inclined her helmet. "I owe it to your father. I failed in my duty to remain at his side."
She sounds genuine in her regrets, but I can't trust her anymore than I can my dreams. "He would understand and respect your sense of chivalry."
Again the slight bow. "Thank you." Then in business-like tones, "What position would you prefer us to occupy? We're willing to take point if need be."
Arta indicated Jericho. "My … companion … has agreed to be our forward scout. However if you wish to divide the responsibility …" To Jericho, she said, "This is Knight Captain Dusk; she'd like to share point with you."
Jericho pulled his beard. "Lemme see, how 'bout we leave the tincans clunking along in the rear. Maybe even a fucking mile behind where they can't be heard by every Wasteland critter we come across."
Dusk's voice box conveyed her outrage. "Clunking? Is this guy for real?"
Arta said hastily, "Its just his little joke!" Lowering her voice, "You see he's a proud man, and to be anything less than first would wound his vulnerable self-esteem. Perhaps you could humour him, and cover the flanks and rear for now?"
"Since you ask it, yes. But he'd better have some respect for the Brotherhood in future. Clunking!" Still bristling, she issued the appropriate orders to her squad members.
Sighing with relief, Arta confronted Jericho. "Now you've finished winding people up, I'd like to introduce Butch. But, wait a moment, haven't you two already met?"
Jericho guffawed. "Looks like I didn't get up quite early enough! Yeah, our paths have crossed. Long enough for me to figure the little fucker's only good for Guai bait. Put him on a rope and drag him after those bozos!"
How could I forget so quickly how annoying he can be! With an air of patience she didn't feel, Arta told Butch. "Don't mind the resident arsehole. Stay in the middle with Bryan. If anything goes down, then make sure he's safe."
Butch gave his one-shouldered shrug. "Why do I get the impression everyone's down on me? Sure I can do that. C'mon kiddo, I'm gonna make you the first Wasteland Snake! After me, that is."
"Jeez, man, the honour … it's like almost too much!"
Arta watched affectionately as the small boy took up a position alongside his would-be gang leader. From above Stockholm gave a parting whistle, and Deputy Weld a less appropriate resume of the delights of Megaton she was leaving behind.
And now … she turned back to Clover. Beset by anxiety, the blonde looked at her most adorably vulnerable.
"I'm gonna be alongside you, aren't I, lover?"
This is it. Don't feel, think. "I don't know how to tell you this."
"Tell me what?"
"I love you … but …"
Worriedly Clover said, "That started well. Until the 'but'."
"I want you to stay behind."
"Wh … why?"
"Because you were right. Someone has to keep an eye on Katrina. That kind of power is too much for a single person, even one of unimpeachable integrity, which she isn't."
"But why me?" Clover's voice was thick with emotion. "Why not him? He'd actually want to go. I don't. I want to be with you."
"Isn't it obvious? I trust you. I don't trust him. More to the point, Katrina won't either. She likes you, you're on her wavelength."
"He made her trust him before; he can do it again. He's certainly wheedled you round easily enough." Tears welled in Clover's eyes. "I can't believe you're gonna do this."
"I have to put the future of the Wasteland before my own needs."
"No you don't. You can still choose like an ordinary human being. Not like some great heroine that everyone's in awe of." Clover gripped Arta's arm. "Don't send me away. I may never see you again."
However much she'd tried to prepare for the moment, Arta was profoundly shaken by Clover's plea and the agony of her dilemma. Seeking inspiration, she cast her gaze towards the horizon beyond the tented encampment. From out of the corner of her eye, something caught her attention.
No, it was quite impossible.
Next to the blackened remains of a campfire, a folding table and two canvas chairs were set out. On the left sat a hooded figure in dark green robes, on the right a man in a faded white suit and a fedora hat. Between them a chessboard and pieces had been arranged.
Breaking away from Clover, Arta began to run, trying to avoid tripping over the ropes between the tents. As she drew closer, she saw the robed man make his first move: pawn to queen's fourth. The pieces had conventional designs, and were made of highly polished stone, catching the glint of the morning sun and throwing their own shadows across the checkered surface.
When he turned briefly in her direction, she realised he was old man with a venerable white beard, and a hooked nose. His blue eyes were clear, his countenance hale. From a silver chain around his neck hung a wooden medallion carved in the semblance of a tree sprouting leaves. Slowing, Arta moved so that she could see the second player, who had responded with an identical move.
The face that was revealed to her was one rotten and ruined, so stripped of flesh by the decay of innumerable years that the white bones showed through. Within it only the eyes peering from their hollow sockets seemed to live. The hand that gripped and released the pawn was withered and grey.
Breathing hard, Arta stepped backwards. The players gave no further sign that they acknowledged her presence. They played with a calm economy of movement, the only sound the click of the pieces, the harsh wheezing of the ghoul's respiration, a breath of wind snatching at the tent flap.
What had she expected to find? Burke playing chess with Death? Or her father? And if it had been so, what wisdom could they offer her? Both were prepared to make sacrifices to achieve their grandiose schemes. They would surely have scorned her emotions as foolishly sentimental.
But her father had on one occasion abandoned his dreams. He had abandoned them for her. Given up the future of the Wasteland to secure that of his only child.
She turned and walked slowly back. Clover and Jericho were waiting for her, he with his arms folded, she with knuckles pressed to her lips.
Addressing the former Raider, Arta said, "Katrina's in Scrapyard. She may leave soon, but the tracks of a whole army shouldn't be hard to find."
He nodded. "I guessed that was where she was. But if I went there, I'd probably be strung up."
"You can go now with my blessing. And if Katrina doubts it, repeat to her these words: I am Alpha and Omega."
"I am Alpha … and Omega." He looked at her strangely. "How come you've changed your mind?"
Arta smiled. "Call it a woman's intuition if you like. If there's one thing a high priestess needs to keep her feet on the ground, it's a father who resolutely refuses to believe. All the same, be careful to whom you speak your heresy."
"I will. Thanks kiddo. I hope I see ya again sometime."
The look on Clover's face as she silently took her hand was inexpressibly sweet. If any decision I've taken feels right, this one does. Was I justified in following my heart? What other guidance could I have sought out? The choice was mine to make.
She thought about the figures in her dreams. She saw now that whether they were real or merely metaphorical, the karmic dilemma they represented remained the same. The spirit of the hooded figure might inhabit Burke, Amata, Eulogy Jones … even Mei Wong. The man robed in white could be Three Dog, Sarah Lyons or her own father. Their fates would not change the choices she must make every day of her life. Whether Burke was alive or dead, the dark vision he represented was forever. And there would always be idealists like her father aspiring to create a better world. It was for her, and everyone else, to bring about the reality. Each significant action she took would weigh on the side of the angels … or the demons.
She looked again at the chess players hunched over the board. She would not to submit to becoming like one of the pieces they moved so helplessly. After leaving behind the grim metal walls of Vault 101, she had been reborn as a Wastelander into a new life. Whatever the harsh circumstances of the world, she would defy those who sought to control her destiny, to make her an instrument in another's hands. Now she herself would be the player, and choose the moves that would decide her fate.
Still holding onto Clover, she turned to the waiting party.
"C'mon let's go." Pointing to the bleak Wastes stretching into the distance: "Let's go out there."
The game was only just beginning, and who could tell how it would end.
And so it came to pass that the Lone Wanderer, known to some as the Angel of Death, stepped through the great door of Vault 101, like a child born again from the womb, into the annals of legend. The Capital Wasteland proved a cruel and inhospitable place, but the Wanderer never looked back with regret; for she knew that whatever long and hard road lay ahead of her, here, at last, she was free.
Yes I'm afraid that after over 300 000 words and 2 yrs, it really is the end. I realise this may come as a surprise/disappointment/shock to my most loyal readers. However I decided (with a couple of exceptions) not to warn people in advance, as there seemed no point upsetting them prematurely (not to mention having to deal with constant pleas for the story to be made longer!)
Of course there have been hints. Setting aside the way the plot has gone, I mention in my profile and the start of the story that it's not about fulfilling quests but about Arta surviving perils to become a true Wastelander. So hoping that the story would continue to the end of the game (or even beyond to the DLCs!) was always only a dream; indeed for Arta it is a dream. Like convincing Moira not to complete the Wasteland Survival Guide, that dream must now be crushed. It was never on the cards. It was always my intention to end the story after Arta's triumphal return to Megaton, thus signalling she had become that legendary figure known as the Lone Wanderer.
So this is my answer to those who will still beg for the story to go on. There is no more story as far as I'm concerned. In fact the original plot has already been expanded, mostly due to reader requests and ideas. These included adding Clover as a companion, an extended role for Burke and a 'supernatural' dimension. Just these elements have vastly multiplied the odyssey through the Wastes to epic size.
Bearing this in mind, consider the possible length of the story if it didn't end here, because the next logical conclusion would be after Take it Back. And apart from anything else, I just don't have the desire to continue one single project any longer. There are other things I'd like to write: maybe even some one-shots for a change! It's hard to do that at the same time as taking such an epic story through to completion. You have to be very focused.
And I know that some of you are thinking, but they're on the way to Jefferson's and Rivet City! You can write it that far surely, the characters are there to use!
No, I really can't. Yes there's a quest line, it's been there all the time, but it's not my story, which has ended in the way it's supposed to. You know what's likely to happen: they'll find James isn't there, and clues that will lead them on to Vault 112, Butch and Bryan will wind up in Rivet City, etc, etc, you've played the game, and you know. (To anyone who hasn't I'm afraid it's beyond the call of my duty to help you out here!)
And if you want, you can complete the story in your mind's eye; imagine how Arta might have dealt with the 'vampires' in Blood Ties, or discovered The Replicated Man or rescued Reilly's Rangers, and so on right up to the fateful decision at the Water Purifier. I'm afraid there's nothing more I can say in consolation.
As far as the actual writing is concerned, it's sometimes been hard, but often rewarding. Completing a chapter has nearly always come as a relief. I've sometimes worried about the length, (including that of individual chapters) but I've come to see the story as something like a long-running series.
It remains for me, as is my habit, to give you all my thanks. I hope it's mostly been an enjoyable rather than a frustrating experience. A special mention goes to those who've also reviewed, as you've provided me with absolutely invaluable feedback, inspiration and ideas. I've also been lucky to get some amazingly loyal reviewers who've continued to contribute over the months and years of writing. You know who you are and how much your words have meant to me!
But as most of you reading this ought to have completed the story, despite its great length, my gratitude to you is simply immense. Without you, much of my efforts would have little point, and I would have had no incentive to finish it. Knowing that significant numbers of people were waiting for the completion of each chapter has kept me going all this time. Thank you so much for sticking with it to the end!
And now the final set of author's notes. Make the most of them.
Tickling stick: the mole rat stick thingy is almost as dumb.
A suit of black armour: Arta was wearing Enclave 'Hellfire' armour when I completed the game, available only as downloadable content (Broken Steel). Considerably better than Brotherhood power armour, having the best defensive rating, and is fire resistant to boot.
The Third Day: On which Christ rose from the dead. Or if you prefer the phrase once used by the Bishop of Durham, performed a 'conjuring trick with bones'.
Raider army: the most significant difference from the normal plot, a wild card that was unfortunately impossible to resolve in the time frame of the story. What will happen to Katrina's Spartans? I'd give them a reasonable chance to achieve most of their objectives, assuming that Arta discovers the secret of where the Supermutants are coming from. But what then? Sharing the Wasteland with a newly victorious Brotherhood (or possibly Enclave) would seem highly unlikely (unless Arta herself survived as in the Broken Steel DLC). By then the Spartans' greater numbers and organisation would make them the equivalent of Caesar's Legion. And when the Brotherhood took on the similar sized force of the New California Republic in the West, they lost. The only difference is the Capital Wasteland Brotherhood would have Liberty Prime (or in the case of the Enclave winning, vertibirds). But one super weapon would be spread awful thin, even if it kept working, and troops on the ground would still be needed. I think Katrina might just win it.
A young woman from Lorraine: Jeanne D'Arc or Joan of Arc. Defeated the English at Orleans in 1429, and placed the French Dauphin on the throne. Ultimately she was captured, tried by the Inquisition and burned as a heretic. She wasn't consciously in my mind when I started the story, and there are clear differences between Arta and the historical Joan. Joan was clear and assertive about her divine mission from the beginning. Arta is more like Milla Jovovich's portrayal in Luc Besson's film, at first somewhat carried by events and the people around her, until she becomes the heroine they want her to be.
Armoured Vault Suit: bear in mind that Arta can't swap clothing at the touch of a hotkey like in the game, so it isn't an entirely daft thing to be wearing. Speed of movement, and therefore manoeuvrability, is high, and the defence rating, (perhaps raised a few points by Jericho's mods) is not altogether pathetic. Having said that, I'd take Ranger Battle Armour over it any day, no matter how long it took to yomp across the Wastes.
Love machine theme: the hanging thing with the couple doing it is a bit gross, but at least its colourful, and all the little lights are nice
Angels … or demons: the idea that every significant human action is a blow on the side of good or evil is an ancient one known as Manicheanism. Apart from being an interesting alternative to some mainstream religions, which assume the 'good' side will inevitably win, it seems very much in tune with Fallout's Karma system.
Don't feel, think: the reverse of Bruce Lee's dictum in Enter The Dragon: 'Don't think, feel!' I have to say that right up to the last I wasn't sure which way Arta would go. The rational choice was to send Clover not Jericho. But I concluded that, given the option, going with her feelings was what Arta had done throughout the story, and it would be wrong for her to change now. So Lee got it right after all: feeling before thinking made sense in the end.
Semblance of a tree sprouting leaves: denoting a druid from Oasis. One of my regrets was I couldn't include that location, but it was too far off the beaten track.
Out there: more than an echo of Kirk's final line in Star Trek. But what a line to end (or begin) anything! When I was a little younger, I used to play social RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. The part I always loved most was leaving at the start of the adventure, when the possibilities seemed virtually limitless. With this ending, I tried to recall that feeling.
And last of all, I have to make a plug for my next story. You heard it here first. Rather than begin on all the pending items listed in my profile, I'm going to attempt a hopefully much briefer fic based on cooperative play in Fable2. Just because it's the freshest in my mind, and seems like a good idea. Two very different incarnations of a heroine from parallel universes meet each other with exciting, humorous and maybe even erotic results!