I was disappointed not to see in-game fiction in Fallout 3 of the type we’ve enjoyed in the Elder Scrolls games, so I wrote a short story to be divided over four parts, which will take the form of Holotapes (to be displayed via the Pip-Boy) in a to-be-determined mod inspired by Terminator (in the same way that one of Fallout 3’s quests is inspired by Bladerunner). The books will just be lying around for the player to find, and won’t serve any particular function in the story. I’ll release them later as a standalone mod.
He vomited twice and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It wouldn’t do to get sick down here, where no help was coming.
Alice turned to him. “Are you OK?” she said.
He nodded, still nauseous.
She looked concerned but said nothing. In the dim light of the cave, the only way was down. “Come on, we need to keep moving,” she said.
She was really frightened, but couldn’t show it: not now.
John moved with surprising agility for his large, muscular frame, leaping from rock to rock. He had more experience with this sort of thing, and Alice followed tentatively, feeling her way down with clammy palms against cool rock.
After half an hour or so, they rested. They were so far below ground by now that surely it was safe to stop. John prepared a fire while Alice unpacked their lunch. Beef sandwiches, an orange each, and a bottle of fresh water. She wondered if it was madness to drink the water now, but it wouldn’t keep for long; the Nuka Cola would last, so best to save that for later. They ate their lunch in silence, savoring the freshness. Knowing it would be their last.
They were lucky to get out when they did. Alice had felt the dread in the pit of her stomach all morning when the four minute warning came, so they were already out in the Appalachian Mountains. She had told him that they were there for a camping trip, but he’d guessed it was more when he’d seen the tins of pork ‘n’ beans, medical supplies and other sundries packed in their bulging backpacks. Knuckles white with tension, she’d insisted they start climbing down and down in uncharted caverns. Was it premonition or a bad dream? He knew it was too important to ask. They’d been friends for long enough for him to trust her, and she’d never been wrong – at least, not like this. They were still within reach of the radio signal when the bombs dropped. They felt the earth shake, and then nothing. Wordlessly, they had continued their descent, numb with horror and endless grief.
After a day or two they fell into a routine. John liked to keep busy, so he’d start the day by splashing in the freezing water of the cave pool in the corner, then shivering by the fire until he was dry. He’d eat the breakfast Alice had prepared of pork ‘n’ beans and a cupful of the water they’d kept in the bottles. Each bottle would last two days, and they had only five before it was gone. He didn’t mind, since rank water would make them sicker than the Nukas that were their last resort. Neither of them knew how long they’d be down there. They’d never really paid attention to the Duck and Cover broadcasts, and both regretted their ignorance. How long would the fallout last? How long until it was safe to go back above? They had enough supplies to last them two months if they rationed themselves, and daily their frugal meals shrank until their bitter nights were spent clinging to each other by the meager flame, shivering from warmth and hunger.
Alice insisted that they didn’t burn the books, and in a sense he was glad of it. John loved to hear her read to him, and it was a comfort against the cold. The hunger stopped bothering him after a week or two. They just felt tired and weak all the time, but at least they were not sick. She’d been right, of course – this far down below the world had kept out the ash and dust. No radiation had touched them here, but they knew they lived on stolen time. Every day their need pressed closer, like floodwater seeping under the door. They would die a slow and painful death out there, or starve and rot here where nobody would bury them.
Even after every word was etched inside their hearts and minds, they did not burn the books. They knew they could rewrite them – memories forged from dim ashes and tired eyes – but each knew that should they die, those words might lie forgotten. Neither knew the scale of devastation above the ground, but they would not contribute to its loss. They burnt the labels from the cans, and then the spare clothing they didn’t need any more, and finally the carcasses of the rats they used for food.
They had toothpaste and soap; Alice had seen to that. Not for vanity, either; Alice knew how deadly infection could have been to them. They had to get used to the unpleasant chill of the wash-water, and the degradation of excreting in a quiet corner of the cave, but at least they were clean and safe.
John, for his part, was also clever and resourceful. He was the one to disappear for hours at a time, and return with some dead creature that would have to be carefully inspected for signs of sickness before being roasted over the makeshift spit. Alice had flinched the first time she’d gutted a rat, but after that she was fine. They sustained each other, even finding laughter, as fifteen years of friendship recalled their shared youth, and in the dwindling camplight they’d entertain each other with made-up stories of their own.
One night – or morning, they could no longer tell – they were wakened by a low-pitched growl and the stink of fur. Bolt awake and trembling, they felt around for weapons and found none. Eyes glowed and the glint of bared teeth, crouching in the hollow dark. With slow, careful movements, Alice felt to her right; John to his left. His hands curled against the can opener. The weakest and bluntest of weapons, but all they had. The dog surveyed them with canine thoughts of murder. They could hear its ragged breaths as it slunk towards them; its own fear blunted by hunger and disease. Clearly, the hound had been above ground too long, and Alice immediately shrank back against the chilled wall, more terrified of contamination than of torn flesh.
John was breathing hard, and stared around with widened eyes. He had placed himself between Alice and the dog, which was close enough now for them to see its starving drool. His fingers gripped the steel device and as the dog finally leapt, he brought it down upon its head. No pain or fear could deter the creature from its feast and soon its teeth found the wasting muscle of John’s arm. Now screaming, he wrenched the tool into his other hand and slammed it into the dog’s skull again and again, hearing bone splinter and skin tear but feeling no respite from his own agony as his flesh parted.
With one last muffled yelp the monster melted to the floor, and John fell back onto the blanket-pile, shaking. Alice at last dropped the blood-soaked bottle into the litter bag, picking shards of glass thoughtlessly from the dog-corpse and tidying up the fragments from where they had scattered. It was a shame to have wasted the cola but there was nothing to be done. She sighed and led John gently to the pool’s edge and bathed his wounds. He was brave about it, even as she injected the tattered edges of his skin. She should have brought more bandages. “Kiss better,” she said, pressing her lips to the uninjured part of his arm, and then they ate by the fire, silently thanking God they were still alive. It wasn’t so bad, they thought, and dog meat made a pleasant change from rat.
Too soon, she felt, there were no more rats. The pork ‘n’ beans had been gone weeks, and the last two bottles of Nuka Cola lay treasured at the bottom of their bags. Alice had suggested they reduce their ration to a sip or two each day, but knew immediately that wouldn’t work. It would evaporate and be wasted and lost. They’d be dead within a week, and useful for only a day or two of that. Sitting by the softly glowing embers, they regarded their fate.
“I’ll have to go up there,” John had said, and Alice had no tears left to answer.
She nodded, pain etched deep into her young face.
“Just … not yet,” she whispered.
“I can’t put it off any more,” he said. “We’ll die down here! Don’t you understand?”
“I know,” she said, miserably, “But if you go … I can’t lose you, John.”
At last, it was he who understood, and he used some of his precious strength to clasp his friend’s face and kiss her.
With too much energy, she wound her arms around his neck and drew him down to lie beside her. They traded expert, hungry kisses and drank deeply of each other’s warmth and tenderness.
After a long time, he began to feel cold, and leaving Alice sleeping, he pulled on his clothes and crept away. He fastened his shoes some distance up the slope so as not to make a sound. Glancing back once, and seeing only the rhythmic falling of his lover’s chest, John muttered a prayer and continued on.
It was already twilight when he reached the mouth of the cave. Almost too late, he considered a weapon, and hoped he wouldn’t need one. He spotted a large branch near the surface and hoped it wouldn’t make him sick. Gingerly he touched it and then he grasped it, snapping off the smaller sproutings to form a rough staff. John waited almost long enough to contemplate what he might see, and how unprepared he was to face it. It was death, either way, and at least he could give them both a chance.
John tried not to think of Ellen dead, as he drove down the abandoned highway. Part of him hoped she was alive, and the other part feared she was, and whether she would forgive him. She would at least understand: he was only human. Much as he didn’t want to leave Alice all alone in their pitch dark hole, he had to know, one way or the other. He had planned to marry the girl, after all.
It had almost been a surprise to find the car still there after all that time. There were a few animal tracks but no other signs of life.
Alice had been right; nobody had been there in quite some time. With no other traffic on the road, it took only forty minutes to reach their old town, but that felt far too long. After so many weeks, it felt strange without Alice’s chatter beside him. Always hopeful and ever-loving, he wondered why he’d ever thought to live without her.
Ellen, of course, had been very beautiful. Much like Alice, but prettier and more slender. The sort of girl men like to show off to their friends. She was clever too, in her own way, but hers was a wistful intellectualism unfit for this dark new world.
Gray rain splashed off the windshield.
John turned the corner and halted at the gas station on the left. Under concrete cover he left the car and wandered inside. There wasn’t much food left, but John wasn’t choosy, and soon the little basket was full of tins and dried goods. He wondered briefly whether to leave some of his precious cash behind in payment, but seeing no-one, he shrugged and made towards the exit.
“Just where the f*** do you think you’re going?”
John turned and spied a man of forty-five or so, his pudgy arm resting on a shotgun.
“I … uh … sorry. Here, I have cash.” He reached into his pocket and gave what he had.
The stranger glared and took it, stuffing it into his pocket with a grunt.
“I should fill up the tank,” he said, indicating the car. “Can I do that?”
“You got more of this?” the man said, patting his pocket.
John paused. He took a few more items off the shelf and brought them to the counter, then produced a gold ring from his pocket.
“Do I look like a pawn shop?” the man said, but picked up the ring anyway and inspected it.
“It’s all I have,” said John quietly.
The man grunted.
Alice didn’t need to be told that Ian was dead. Nobody could have survived that blast, and she felt it with the same instinct that told her that it was coming. He’d been away on a business trip and she hadn’t heard from him in three days. She hadn’t had the chance to warn her husband, so she’d chosen the man she was closest to – at least geographically – and fled to the one place she thought they’d be safe.
Nobody else would have believed her, anyway.
John had heard her grief, though she’d tried to conceal it. Out hunting in the endless dark of the caverns, he’d thought at first it was the cry of an animal. In his heart he joined her, but he didn’t let on that he’d heard her. He let Alice keep her moment of privacy, and allowed her to believe she wasn’t adding to his own pain. He couldn’t help himself from hurting for her, even amid his own grief. After all, he was only human.
Then, after a time, Alice stopped crying in the dark, and when he returned from the hunt one day, she’d given him a thin smile and put her ring in his hand. It’s not like she’d be needing it any more, after all. They could use it to buy food, she said, when it’s over.
When it’s over, he thought, as he surveyed the ash and rubble. His old house. Over. Much to his relief, the bits of Ellen he found weren’t really recognizable. Fragments of bone and cloth, the flesh long since gone. He tried to tell himself that it wasn’t really her, but it was too late: thoughts of her spilt into his heart and he found himself lying on the ground, a long time later, his face wet from racking sobs. He considered burying her in the yard, but thought better of it.
It was getting dark.
Images of Ellen’s graceful curves flashed in his mind as he drove in the darkening rain. In grim silence, even to himself, he sped on through the blackness.
He almost didn’t see it. John knew not to swerve, but ploughed on through, hearing and feeling the remains of the deer as it burst apart in the headlights. Ages later, the car finally stopped. John took a moment to compose himself and then stepped out of the car to inspect the damage. For perhaps the first time, he was grateful to be driving an “oversized, gas-guzzling pile of crap” as Ellen had put it. It was bent but not broken. The car would still do. He didn’t even try to remove the blood and pieces from the vehicle. The rain would soon start up again and clean the worst of it off, and he’d best be inside when it did.
As he reached for the door handle, he heard it. A rustling in the woods behind him. Footsteps. One person, then two, then several. They were moving towards him; swiftly, purposefully. He knew in an instant that they weren’t here to help. His heart racing he swung the door open and climbed inside, locking the doors as fast as he could reach them and turning the key. Nothing. Turning again, still nothing. The men were closer now and he could see the hunger-madness in them. The one on the left – the giant half-lit in the mounting storm – aimed his shotgun at the rearmost tire as the others ran towards the car. John cursed and tried the engine one more time and – miraculously – the car lurched forward causing his attacker to lose his aim. One bullet hit the trunk as his foot hit the floor, and soon the diminished specters were small in the distance behind him.
John felt very afraid, then. Afraid for himself and for Alice, and all that they had lost; but moreso for what they would find in the months ahead. It had been mere weeks since the world had ended, but already the world had grown cold and dangerous. There was no place here for weakness or pity. Or love. He couldn’t think that. He couldn’t not think that, as Ellen flickered unbidden in his mind and he wavered, trying to remember or to forget.
This time, he did see her in time, and brought the car to a sudden, sharp stop. The dripping figure stared at him with hollow eyes. Her gaunt, frail frame bound tight in sodden clothes. The girl can’t have been older than ten, and with her stood a smaller clone of maybe eight years old. Two sisters, alone in the dark. Pity held him speechless, but even then he knew he would not ask them where their parents were, or why they were out freezing in the acid rain. He unlocked the rear doors, wound down the window, and yelled at them to get in the car.
He was human.
“Just what the f*** do you expect me to do with them?” said Alice furiously, indicating the specters dripping ashen-gray in the half-light. She wondered for a moment whether he meant to feed those girls or eat them. What could she do for them here in this dark pit?
Three pairs of eyes told her that the real darkness was outside.
Alice turned and marched back down in to the blackness, as the three figures stood useless and silent. Some time later she returned with a bucket of cold water.
After they’d splashed off the worst of the ash-dust and rainwater, Alice brought the medkit. Irritably, she muttered, “Not enough,” but then John presented the small bag he’d brought with him and she retrieved the chemicals from within. It contained both Rad-X and Rad-Away, and soon the worst of the poisoning would be gone, but both the adults knew they’d have to ration their supplies. They wouldn’t be going back out there for a long time. Not until they had to.
“My husband’s dead,” the red-haired woman said, prodding the fire with metal tongs.
Kerry noticed that while she said the words with icy dullness, she had clenched her jaw as she’d said them. Probably better to stop asking questions.
“How long were you married?” asked Katie, before the older girl could stop her.
Still a child, thought Alice, in a way that bore no measure of age. “Two months,” she responded, trying not to think about it.
“Is John your husband now?” Katie asked, like one of those brats poking a dead bird with a stick.
Alice didn’t answer.
She didn’t really understand the rage, or where it came from, but still the anger surged in her like a fiery tar in her lungs. She kept away from the others, and even as John’s mouth had found hers in the darkness and they’d gratefully made love through a second night, she remained in her own world of isolation. John looked at her sometimes, through the gloom they’d grown accustomed to, and reminded her somehow of a dog that had been beaten and broken. If she reached out to him with her arms and held him close to comfort him, inside she was an ocean away, caught adrift and sinking.
The girls had made a makeshift bedroom in the next cave-room – within earshot if Katie woke screaming in the night, but allowing some privacy. Alice had insisted on that. With only each other for company, she’d had to demand areas for the girls to live and play that were far enough to afford them some distance or they’d all go mad. She was a good mother in her own way, and cared for them all with kindness, but John saw within her a sullen resentment and noted the hours she spent alone. Alice had learned to hunt for rats, and took herself off to scour the infinite darkness while John built the fire and kept them all safe.
Safe! How could they be safe here? Even with the two of them they’d come close to death, first from dog-bite and later through starving. She couldn’t take care of four of them. John would have been kinder to let the girls rot in the rain than prolong their agony down here. Still, the deed was done, and what could she do? She’d thought about killing them, once or twice, but couldn’t have brought herself to such ends. They’d have to cling to the little faith she had and wait for some miracle to save them. Days later, none was in sight, and soon the food would be gone again.
“I think we’ve got enough supplies for four more days,” John noted, ticking off another date on the calendar he’d hung on a natural ledge. It was late February. They’d missed Christmas down here, and Alice guessed he’d found the girls around the second week of January. She amused herself by wondering if they’d eaten dog for Thanksgiving. Her lips stretched into a grim smile, she busied herself preparing their pauper’s meal.
“It’s Kerry,” said Katie, “She’s all wrong.”
“Wrong? What do you-?” Alice regarded the child’s quiet face, sallow and taut with fear. “Where is she?”
The little girl led on and Alice navigated the time-worn halls until she arrived at the hollow chamber where the girls whiled away their hours at play. Katie dropped her hand and faded into the darkness. Moments later, her shadow emerged from torchlight as the child waited by the ledge. She followed the child’s finger and saw the bone-white figure unmoving at the bottom of the pit. Alice stared a minute longer, awaiting any stir of movement or pain, and then her own began anew.
John heard it again, a sound he’d sought to forget, and tried in his mind to bury it along with the fragments of Ellen he’d left in the ruins of his old house. The racket continued and rose – a penetrating animal howl of anguish – inhuman, caustic and unbearable. The world’s sorrow carried on a scream. Fighting the waves of nausea and emotion, he stood paralyzed for several seconds, until he knew that it would not stop and would not end, and was not this time meant to be private. However hard she’d pushed him back and shut him out, he knew then that he loved Alice with any shred of humanity that lingered within him, and with his dying breath he would comfort her. A funeral march quickened to a near-run, deadly in the treacherous dark, he ducked and wove through the cavern until he found them.
“She’s alive,” he breathed, and with withered arms he lifted her into Alice’s numb embrace. She took the girl and as he held the torch she examined her face, finding at last the shallow breathing and quivering that told her it was true. Katie followed them with silent tears as they hurried back to the living-cave, and Alice set to work to make a miracle of her own.
“This is how it is going to work,” Alice said, tying her auburn hair into place. “We stick together at all times. If we tell you to do something – not ask you, tell you – you obey it absolutely and without question. There will be no bickering, no shouting, no smart-mouthing and no running off. This is about staying alive. You have to trust me. I WILL not let anything bad happen to you, so help me God, but I can only keep you safe if you trust me. Can you do that?”
The older girl blinked, her bruised forehead dark against her yellow hair. She nodded.
“Do you promise? Say it.”
“I promise,” she swore, her face resolute.
Alice turned to the other, and crouched so that they were eye-to-eye. “Katie, do you swear it too?”
The smaller child raised her hand in obedient salute. “I promise,” she said.
At last alone, Alice raised the small mirror to reflect the fire they’d kept burning for so many months, and shifted it until she could see herself. She steeled herself to behold the stranger, and there she was: older, thinner, her eyes wide against her sunken cheeks. She’d been quite fat when she’d entered the cave, and once she’d have thought herself pretty to have a stomach that small, but instead the skin hung uselessly off her still-wide frame, stretched and hollow like an old balloon. Sighing, she pulled the mirror higher, reached into the small bag beside her, and began to paint.
“You’re wearing makeup!” observed John when he neared the fire, and she didn’t protest too much when he kissed the lipstick from her, or smudged her foundation with his hands. It had been months since she’d felt beautiful, and ages since she’d even thought of it. She’d never be a movie star, but that wasn’t the point: this was war-paint. Hair pulled tight with hairspray and a will of iron, she fixed her lipstick and replaced the cap with a snap. In one movement, she swooped up her purse, smiled her first true smile in aeons, and strode towards light and hope.
Out there, it was much as she remembered, even if things were different now. John and the kids had been up there once, but she hadn’t. Hers were eyes to which sunbeams were strangers, and when tears and mascara cleared and she observed the world anew, even the hearth of the horizon had its own weird beauty. Ash and blackened sticks where trees had been dotted the sides of the road which stretched out forever. No cars or people or signs of movement anywhere. Just them and the road. The animals had long since gone, and dotted here and there she could make out dark dead shrubs and marks where plants had been.
They had enough gas to last them a few hundred miles, and they set off south where the weather would be kinder. They hoped. Not that it would make much difference, but they told themselves that back in the cities, people like themselves would have grouped together, building a wall of civilization to hold back the tide of evil.
Those signs of evil were everywhere, and sometimes Katie would cry if they saw a looted corpse by the roadside, or the pillaged remains of a town in which unlucky survivors had been picked apart. Kerry asked why they’d impaled them like that, and Alice didn’t know either. She wasn’t sure she wanted to understand. People pull together, she thought, or they die before they’re dead. As they saw town after town of people stacked like party snacks, she lost interest – no longer appalled – and wondered grimly where the people where. The humans, she meant, like herself.
Every so often she’d shudder at the signs of people eaten.
After a time they started looting themselves – only from the long-since dead, and only what they needed – but most of it was gone before and within a day or two the old familiar pangs began.
They’d gone further than they’d planned, after finding an old abandoned gas station, and one more tiny miracle gave them fuel for another day’s journey. Kerry and Katie stopped talking fifty miles ago. Not after some row or other, but because they’d remembered, and their own chill terror had possessed them. Even before, down in the caves, they’d not said much. They played and bickered and shrieked and made noise – but weren’t quite as shrill as children should be, and fell into morbid silence for hours at a time.
One night, as John and Alice whispered to each other in the firelight, he told her that the girls had been trapped in their garden shelter when the bombs fell. That they’d come out too soon, just hours later, and found the scorched silhouettes of mommy and daddy, a grotesque shadow-play on the living room wall. Katie hadn’t spoken for weeks, and bad men had chased them but they could run faster and hide in small places. Like John and Alice, they’d scavenged and stolen, but had no skills for hunting. They’d long have been dead if the big car hadn’t not-quite-hit them in the rain.
Another night in an abandoned motel they’d broken into. She had to admit that she liked the big bed after months in the cave, even waking up covered in bites every day. It felt good to shower, but they had to ration the water as they rationed the meds. Each morning she’d check the girls for signs of the sickness, but none came. They took old newspapers and books they found in the houses. Most were too damaged to read, but once in a while there’d be one that would do, and they added it to their precious treasure. It always amazed them that papers and books and even toys and food could be found. Maybe there was just enough of it to go around. Maybe they were just too far off the track or going in the wrong direction for the raiders to come.
It happened, though, and quickly as it did. The cracking of a broken branch, then the sound of breaking glass. A gutteral howling and then the din as three, then four, five, seven thugs in tattered clothes encircled them, a cacophony of shouting and weapons held aloft. Back-to-back they stood there, mouths gaping and helpless, but Katie found a gun. John fired it before he knew what he was holding, and as the leader fell he shot another. One swung a wood-ax at him but he ducked it, and Kerry was cracking his head open with a plant pot. Alice had a kitchen knife and sliced at the one with a pool cue. Though his reach was further, she was used to moving quickly in the dark. They were all of them injured, but the will to stay alive was stronger than the will to take it, and John still had the only gun. Soon all lay dead or bleeding, and John and Alice limped out with the girls. It took the rest of the night for Alice to patch them up.
They rested another night in another town, and set off at first light. The bleeding had stopped, but they were weakened, and Alice frequently had to take the wheel. She risked a raid on a lakeside cabin, and was relieved to find it empty. She found jelly and soft potato chips and something that looked like pickled vegetables. Nobody could eat the chips, but the jelly made the crackers less dry and helped them preserve the last of the soda. After their meal, she extinguished the fire, and they all got back in the car.
Kerry begged to sit in the front, and Alice let her, and took her place in the back with Katie leaning against her. Sometimes she slept, and Alice would watch her, absently tousling her pale hair. John and Kerry chatted, and sometimes there was laughter.
“Listen!” Kerry squeaked and John nearly ran the car into a tree. The car radio had crackled into life from its usual static hiss, and clearly a voice rang out. They’d only tried it once a day since leaving the cave. Always nothing, until now.
“… there is room for you here. If you are listening to this, you are not alone. There is hope and help here. Help us rebuild. Please, bring your family here, there is room for you all.”
For the longest time after the message ended, nobody said a word. John had changed direction to follow the voice, and finally they knew where they were going.
“Are we a family now?” Katie asked, looking up at Alice.
“Yes,” she said.
The last of the gray light was ebbing, but their world was dazzling bright. John caught Alice’s eye in the mirror and they exchanged a brief smile as the first stars faintly sparkled above.
Quietly, Katie began to sing.