Preston made for a quiet travelling companion. His head was constantly moving, in the way that reminded Aubrey of how Nate would walk through a crowded shopping center. Only the area wasn't crowded; in fact, it was damn near desolate. Her hand hovered over her holster as she walked, watching Dogmeat happily trot in front of them. The Vault suit clung to her skin, offering little in the way of protection from the chilled autumn air. The piecemeal leather armor she had didn't help much either. "Christ, I'd kill for a sweater." She mumbled.
"Nothing. Just a bit chilly, that's all. I'll warm up soon enough as keep walking."
Preston nodded. "Sorry we don't have any Slippies to speed up travel. We didn't have time to saddle them in Quincy, and even if we did, I don't think they would've helped much." He readjusted his grip on his laser musket. "It is a bit of a walk to Diamond City."
"What's a 'Slippie'?"
"You know, a Sleipnir? They're mounts. I think they were mutated from an animal called a horse?" Preston shrugged. "Don't know why they're called Sleipnir now, 'cause it doesn't sound anything like the word 'horse', but it got shortened to Slippie. Or 'Slipper.' I've heard 'em called that too."
"Sleipnir.…" Aubrey frowned. "I don't suppose these 'Sleipnir' have 6 legs, do they?"
Preston turned to her. "Yeah, actually. How did you know?"
"Sleipnir is the name of a six-legged horse from ancient Norse mythology. Whoever re-domesticated the horse, it seems, had a great sense of humor." She smiled. "Are they common around here?"
"Not terribly. Farms sometimes have one or two, but you see 'em mostly around Bunker Hill or with caravans. Speaking of which," He pointed up the road, at a dilapidated billboard. "Looks like someone's making a pit stop."
Aubrey could only see an animal that looked more like a cow than a horse. "Is that a Sleipnir?"
"No, that's a Brahmin." Preston shook his head. "I think… they used to be called cows? Or maybe bulls… I don't really remember."
"Cows and bulls were the same animal. Cow was a female, bull was a male. Either way, it seems to be serving its purpose fairly well."
"Yeah. Brahmin and Sleipnir are both good farm animals. Some people have tried to work with other animals, but aside from getting lucky with a dog, there's not much else that's tame enough. Maybe the occasional alley cat as you get closer to the city."
Aubrey nodded, chewing on her lip as she filed away that information as they approached the trader.
"So, what's your story?" The woman asked, eyeing Aubrey up and down. "Looking to trade, rob me, or just ask directions to Diamond City?"
"Trust me, friend. I have no interest in robbing you." Aubrey sighed. "But… if you know the easiest way to Diamond City…"
The woman scoffed. "Directions. Figures. Just keep head south til you cross the Charles. You'll walk right into it once you cross the bridge."
Preston cleared his throat. "Hey, Carla? There's a new settlement, just set up a few days ago, up north of here. We don't have much, but… we could use some supplies."
"Do I look like a charity to you?"
"Of course not." Aubrey smiled. "You need to make a living, I understand. But at least put Sanctuary down on your map. We may not have much now, but a little bit of help now will mean a lot of help for you down the road."
Carla sighed, working her jaw for a moment. "Fine. I'll go up there and see what we can work out."
Preston smiled weakly. "Thanks Carla."
"Either of you two got anything to trade before I leave?"
Both of them shook their heads and Carla nodded again, taking the lead rope for her Brahmin and starting up the path for Sanctuary, muttering under her breath the whole way.
Preston shrugged. "Trashcan Carla's not the most hospitable of people, but she's fair on her prices."
"Trashcan Carla?" Aubrey asked, arching an eyebrow.
"She sells pretty much anything you give her. Doesn't specialize like some other merchants will. It started out as a nickname over Bunker Hill, and just kind of… stuck. From what I understand at least. My squad ran into her several times before Quincy."
Aubrey shook her head, and they resumed their quiet walk toward Diamond City.
They'd only walked for another hour, the sun now high in the sky when they heard a commotion just ahead.
"We had a DEAL, Trudy! Hand over the goods you owe us!"
"I ain't givin' you poison selling chem-pushers anything! You know what that junk has done to my boy?!"
Aubrey and Preston shared a look, turning towards the source of the argument: a long dilapidated Drumlin Diner. Aubrey could just make out two figures standing in the parking lot through the trees.
"He bought them fair and square; ain't our fault if he's strung out. Now, don't make me come in there and shoot up that little trading post of yours."
Both Preston and Aubrey changed course at that, starting up the service road toward the diner with Preston already charging the coil on his laser musket. The man who'd been shouting turned towards them, pulling a cheap, home-make looking pistol from his belt. "Whoa, whoa, stay back Vault Girl. This doesn't concern you."
Aubrey quirked an eyebrow, settling her features into her courtroom mask. "You stop waving that gun in my face, or it's going to involve me."
The woman behind the man tapped him on the shoulder, and they both lowered their weapons. "Hey, easy now." He sighed. "We'll put our weapons away. Just… don't do anything crazy, okay?"
"What's going on here?" Aubrey asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Just a, uh.. Business dispute, okay? Trudy here is sitting on a pile of goods that she owes me." The man shrugged. "I tried to reason with her, but it looks like I'll have to take what's mine by force."
"Sure didn't sound like 'reasoning' to me." Aubrey replied.
"I'm gonna pretend you didn't say that." The man sighed. "Look, if you want some easy money, how about you help us out. I could use an extra gun…"
Aubrey narrowed her eyes at him.
"...Or maybe you could talk to her? Make her see reason. All I want is my money. I got nothin' against her."
"I will speak with her. There must be a way to peacefully work this out."
"Great." The man smiled. "Good luck. If things go sideways, we'll back you up."
Aubrey didn't grace him with a reply, instead simply turning and clicking her tongue for Dogmeat to join her as she walked over to the diner entrance.
A woman with gray hair met her at the door. "I saw you and that poison seller talking. You can tell him he's not getting his money. Period."
"Why not? If you owe him something…"
"I don't owe him a damn thing." Trudy spat. "He came round here, got my boy hooked on Jet, sold him a bunch of junk on 'credit' and now he shows up here, threatening to kill us both and take everything."
Preston took his place at the side of the door, facing the two 'chem pushers.
Aubrey sighed. "I want to help you, Trudy. These two don't look or sound particularly trustworthy."
"Damn right they aren't. Listen you wanna help, fine. Get rid of Wolfgang. I don't know what he offered you, but I'll pay you 100 caps to kill that Jet-selling scumbag."
Aubrey bit her tongue for a moment. "There's no need for bloodshed today, Trudy. We can come to a peaceful solution, I'm sure."
"I'm not paying the bastard one cap."
"Alright. So be it. Those are your terms, I can work with that." She leaned against the counter top. "There has to be some way we can reach a compromise."
"I want him gone, I don't want him selling no more Jet to my son, or preferably, to anyone else." Trudy snarled. "He's no better than your average raider, and only about a quarter as smart!"
"I heard that you fuckin' bitch!" The man, Wolfgang shouted from his spot in the parking lot. "You messed with the wrong guy, asshole!"
"Hold your fire!" Aubrey shouted, but her words fell on deaf ears as Wolfgang and his companion both sent bullets flying towards the diner.
"Hit the deck!" Preston cried, ducking inside as a bullet pinged off the metal of the door frame.
Aubrey wasted no time, ducking behind the counter as Trudy dove for the relative safety of a seating booth. Aubrey drew her pistol and swallowed. "So much for diplomacy." She muttered, taking aim and firing two rounds into Wolfgang's leg. The man cried out and fell to the ground, clutching at his knee with one hand and firing blindly at the diner with the other. Preston had already downed the woman he was with, and was recharging his musket's coil.
Trudy stood up when Wolfgang paused to try and reload, emptying four bullets from her own weapon into the man's upper torso, with one clipping his neck.
Aubrey winced, turning her face away as he clutched at his neck, trying and failing to keep the blood inside his body. A final gunshot from Trudy, straight to the head, ended his life.
Then the parking lot was quiet again.
Trudy sighed, her exhale turning to a soft chuckle as she stood properly. "Can't wait to see the crows feeding on that scumbag." She muttered, opening the cash register on the counter top as both Aubrey and Preston stood. "Here, this is for you two, for helping defend the place." She dropped a small leather pouch onto the counter. "If you ever need to trade, my shop's open."
Aubrey's knees were shaking, so she leaned against the back of the empty booth, trying not to think about what had just happened. "You… have everything covered then?"
Trudy nodded. "Yeah. It'll take my son some time to get off the chems, but we'll make it." She shrugged. "We always do. Now, let's get back to business. Need anything for the road?"
Aubrey swallowed down bile. "N-no. I think we're done here for today."
"Glad we could help, ma'am." Preston offered, following Aubrey out of the diner and back to the main road. "Hey… you tried your best." He offered.
Aubrey idly patted Dogmeat's ears when he licked her hand. "There was no need for him to react like that. Do people not know how to take an insult anymore?"
Preston shrugged. "I've taken more than my fair share. But… he was a chem dealer, and most chem dealers tend to sample their wares. They get aggressive. Stupid things will set them off."
"He didn't need to die. He was incapacitated."
Preston was quiet for a moment. "You did your best, General. But not everyone can be saved."
Aubrey didn't respond, instead just wrapping her arms around herself and starting back on the road. "Let's just… get moving. I'd rather not think about what just happened. It's still a long way to Boston."
Aubrey stayed quiet the rest of the walk, only patting Dogmeat's head when he came up for scratches. This world was so… different from the one she'd left. How could society have stagnated so? Two hundred years of development once saw the change in technology from the industrial era to nuclear era, and now… they were barely better than subsistence farmers and bandits.
"Hey," Preston cleared his throat. "It's gonna start getting dark soon. It looks like there's some sort of compound up this ridge. We can stop for the night, if you want."
"Hm?" She glanced around, noting that the shadows were indeed growing longer. "Yeah… I guess that's a good idea." She wanted to vomit as they came up the hill. Several bodies were laying, slumped over where they'd fallen. "These look fresh." She muttered. "No signs of any sort of trauma, either."
Preston hummed. "Yeah. Strange though. Children of Atom don't normally just… keel over."
"Maybe we shouldn't stay…"
Preston pursed his lips, peering out over the landscape. "There's not really any place else to stay. Unless you wanna backtrack…"
Aubrey swallowed. "No. But… at least let us clear the bodies. No point in leaving them to rot in the sun."
"Alright. I'll move the bodies, if you wanna get a fire going in that clearing up there." Preston offered, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Probably less uh… traumatizing?"
Aubrey snorted. "Yeah. That's a word for it. Thank you, Preston."
But before she could even start up the path to the ridge, the ground shook beneath them, dirt erupting around them as dirty pink animals crawled out of the ground, hissing and spitting at the two humans.
"Molerats!" Preston snarled. "Get up on top of something, don't let 'em get your legs!"
Aubrey didn't need to be told twice, scrambling on top of a ruined car and used a broken pipe to swat at the disgusting little creatures, knocking many of them flat while Preston fired with his musket.
Mole rats dropped left and right, stunned by Aubrey's pipe then finished off by Preston's fire. "Christ on a bicycle." Aubrey muttered. "Does everything nowadays want to kill us?"
Preston wiped some sweat from his forehead. "Seems like it some days. Well, least now we have some meat." He climbed down from his perch on a flipped over forklift and started picking through the molerats. "Here, this one looks fairly healthy. Do you know how to butcher an animal?"
Aubrey gulped. "I… have a general idea." She nodded. "It's been a while since I went to survival school, and the animals I killed weren't this big, but… I can make it work."
"What's survival school?"
"Oh, uh… it's, um." She faltered. "It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The Navy had a two-week school that you attended that taught you the basics of wilderness living. Even had a Castaway day, where we were stuck on the water for twenty-four hours."
Preston's eyebrows were knitted together in confusion when she looked back at him. "So… you were in a Navy? In a Vault?"
"...No. I was in the Navy before the Vault. Several years before the Vault." She sighed, taking the mole rat's leg and starting up the hill towards the main clearing. "It's… a long story. I'll explain more later. For now… I'll get started on this animal."
She was able to butcher the mole rat fairly effectively. The switchblade she'd found back in Sanctuary hadn't exactly been the best tool for the job, but she still had a few good sized pieces sizzling on a spit over a fire. Enough for her and Preston to have a piece now, and potentially one in the morning, if she charred it well enough.
She watched Preston, her lips pressed into a thin line as he methodically went around the old disposal site, gathering the dead and laying them, face-down, in a line at the far end of it. The molerat corpses, he simply tossed over the decaying fence before splashing some water over his hands and sitting down beside her. "Wish we had time to give them a proper burial." He sighed. "But it's nearly dark now, and we still have a long walk tomorrow. Better to save our energy."
"Agreed. Here. Hope you like your steaks well done." She handed him one of the filets. "I was able to get more than just these two pieces, but… I'm not sure they'll be good after tomorrow morning."
Preston eyed them. "I've got some cheesecloth in my pack. We can wrap 'em up in that for later, so we'll have travel rations. Just make sure they're cooked through and through."
Aubrey nodded, biting into her own steak and grimacing. It was tough, and certainly didn't taste like anything she was used to, but at least it was a proper meal. Silence fell over them, broken only by the crackling of the fire, suffocating Aubrey until she could stand it no longer. "Preston… did-- did you know these people? Were they part of your Minutemen or a settlement?"
"No. Well, I mean, I didn't know them personally. I knew of them. Part of some religious group called the Children of Atom. They worship radiation, but they can also get a bit… overzealous… with trying to recruit others. The Minutemen clashed with them a few times, but we were never officially at war or anything."
Aubrey nodded. "I still wish I knew what killed them."
"I think it was actual radiation poisoning." Preston shrugged. "Found about 15 or 20 barrels of waste in that barn over there. And some sort of shrine or something right next to it."
Aubrey shuddered. "I can't wrap my head around worshipping something that could kill you."
"A lot of people can't, either. But they do." Preston shrugged. "Should I take first watch? It's getting late."
Aubrey glanced at the time on her Pipboy. "No…no, I'll stay up. You go on and get some rest. I need time to… process everything alone."
Preston nodded. "Alright. Wake me up when you get too tired." He offered a weak smile as he stood. "There's a fairly clean mattress inside that construction capsule. That's where I'll be. Good night, General."
"You can call me Aubrey, Preston; it's alright."
Preston nodded. "Right. Well, good night Aubrey."
As Preston went off for the capsule, Aubrey readied her pistol. "Need to find or get a rifle somehow," she mused. "This won't do much against an armored target… or at long range."
She finished her molerat steak in silence, listening to the crickets and the wind as they sang with the crackling of the fire, creating a deceiving song of peace that filled the quiet night. On half-hour intervals, she walked the perimeter of the strange abandoned area, using the eerie green light from her Pipboy to illuminate her path when she left the safety of the fire's light and warmth.
The darkness seemed far less comforting than it did before she'd crawled out of that Vault. She'd regularly spend time in their backyard, laying on the grass, staring at the stars with Nate at her side.
Now the darkness mocked her, taunted her, dared her to walk into it and disappear. To join so many others in the cold embrace of oblivion.
She shook her head, forcing those thoughts from her mind as she made her way back to the fire. Shaun was depending on her. She needed to find him, to get him back, to keep him safe.
She wiped a renegade tear from her cheek and sniffed. "Focus." She scolded herself. "Focus on the watch, Aubrey. There's time to mourn later."
Dogmeat whimpered beside her, resting his head on her thigh, looking up at her with his big brown eyes as if to say It's okay. I'm here now. She scratched his ears, and he licked at her fingers before putting his paw on her knee and lowering his head again.
"General? General, Aubrey?" Preston's voice stirred her from her sleep. "Wake up, it's first light." He shook her shoulder gently.
Aubrey grunted as she sat up, twisting her back to try and release some of the knots that had developed. "Already? How long has it been?" She asked through a yawn.
"Well, you came and got me around 2am, you said, so I'd say four hours? Maybe five?"
She nodded. "Good enough for government work." She muttered, hauling herself to her knees, then standing. "Let's get moving then." She sighed, grabbing her pack from the head of the mattress. "Just let me find a place to use the restroom, then we'll be on our way."
Preston nodded. "I'll scatter the fire coals."
Aubrey made her way over to a secluded corner and shuddered. "I hate this suit." She groaned, unzipping the suit and shucking it down to where she could do her business. "I need to find pants. Real pants and a shirt."
She finished and splashed some purified water over her hands once she'd zipped the suit up. "At least there's nothing to bury right now." She sighed. "Alright, Preston, let's get on the road."
Preston smiled, handing her a skewer with a couple chunks of the meat from last night on it. "Here, you'll need your strength. I ate mine already."
"Thanks." Aubrey nibbled at the food as they started for the main road, rolling her shoulders as she walked, idly checking the map on her Pipboy. "Huh." She frowned, tuning the radio dial.
"It says there's a new radio station…" She mumbled, listening through the static until she could finally hear the distinct words coming through.
"Automated message repeated: This is Scribe Haylen of Recon Squad Gladius, to any unit in transmition range; authorization Arx-Ferrum-Nine-Five. Our unit has sustained casualties, and we're running low on supplies. We're requesting support, or evac, from our position at Cambridge Police Station."
Aubrey frowned. "Definitely a military style broadcast. Or at least para-military. Are these people Minutemen?"
Preston shook his head. "I don't recognize that code or the name of the person or group. The Minutemen were a bit more unofficial than that. We had groups, and ranks, but nothing like that."
Aubrey chewed her lip. "Cambridge is on the way to the river… practically right on the banks… Should we help them?"
"I think so. If we're going to rebuild the Minutemen… we should start offering help wherever we can. I just hope they aren't Gunners."
"Another group. Mercenaries mostly. They're the ones that attacked Quincy." Aubrey nodded. "I see. Come on, let's move. I don't think I can send a reply to these people from my Pipboy."
"At least they don't sound like they're in too much distress." Preston added. "Let's go."
The group was definitely in distress by the time Aubrey and Preston neared the dilapidated police station. Laser fire cut through the air, along with shouted, barely decipherable commands.
Preston sighed, charging the coil on his musket as the approached the back of the building.
"Here, this way." Aubrey spoke. "This alley will put us right in the courtyard." Should be able to find better cover."
The two of them crept forward, and Preston froze just shy of a gate.
Ferals…" he whispered. "Jesus…"
"Ferals? Feral what?"
"Feral ghouls. See if you can hit them in the leg. I'll finish them off."
Aubrey nodded. "On your mark."
They slid open the gate and Preston nodded. Aubrey went through first, crouched to make herself a smaller target.
"Civilian in the perimeter!" A man in Power Armor shouted, making eye contact with her for the briefest of moments before firing on an emaciated body moving towards him. "Check your fire!"
"Aye, sir!" A woman shouted from the door of the building. Aubrey made a quick note of their positions before taking aim at another of the strange looking creatures that kept pouring through the gaps in the barricades.
Preston was already firing, taking out two of the so called 'ferals' with his musket.
The man in power armor was firing damn near blindly it seemed, having dropped to one knee in his suit. "AD VICTORIAM!"
Aubrey fired, hitting two of the ferals in the legs as she inched towards the upper catwalk on the barricades. If she could make it up there, she could fire downwards on them, take them out from relative safety.
Preston cried out, drawing a combat knife from his boot as one of the ferals lunged at him, stabbing the being in their throat and shoving it to the side as he reached for his weapon.
Aubrey steadied her arms on the railing of the catwalk, raining down covering fire on the ferals that seemed drawn to his call. She gave up trying to aim for the legs, instead focusing on center mass.
Aim, fire, fire.
Aim, fire, fire.
Aim, fire, fire.
Between the four of them, they managed to slow the swarm of ferals to a trickle, then finally to a stop. None of them made it up the catwalk, thankfully, and Preston retrieved his musket.
The man in Power Armor picked himself up from the ground as Aubrey made her way down the catwalk. "We appreciate the assistance, civilian, but what's your business here?"
"We heard your distress call." Aubrey spoke. "Figured we'd offer some help, seeing as we're all stuck trying to survive out here."
The man arched his eyebrows. "A variation on a common answer, but I'll accept it. Are you from a local settlement?"
Aubrey shrugged. "I'm from Vault 111, just north of Sanctuary Hills, on the other side of Concord."
"You're a Vault Dweller?" The man seemed… surprised at her answer. "Not many people would admit to that, I appreciate your honesty."
Aubrey glanced down at herself, frowning at the blue jumpsuit she wore. "Well, I can't really deny it…"
The man tilted his head in a mildly dismissive manner. "If I appear suspicious, it's because our mission here has been difficult. Since the moment we've arrived in the Commonwealth, we've been constantly under fire."
Brilliant, Aubrey thought. So not only does everything want to kill me, a good-sized proportion of people want to, too.
"If you want to continue pitching in," The man continued, "we could use an extra gun on our side."
Aubrey glanced over to Preston. "I want to help, but I don't like the secrecy. Who are you guys, really?"
"Seems more than reasonable, if you really want our help." Preston added, standing at Aubrey's shoulder.
The man looked between the two of them for a moment, then nodded. "Very well. I'm Paladin Danse, Brotherhood of Steel. Over there is Scribe Haylen, and Knight Rhys. We're on recon duty, but I'm down a man and supplies are running low." He sighed, shifting and making his armor clank and groan. "I've been trying to send a distress call to my superiors, but the signal is too weak to reach them."
The woman looked up from her spot tending to the other wounded man. "Sir… if I may?"
"I've modified the radio tower on the roof of the building, but it's just… not enough. We need something that will boost the signal."
The Paladin nodded. "Our target is ArcJet systems. It contains the tech we need: the Deep Range Transmitter. We infiltrate the facility, secure the transmitter, and bring it back here." He tilted his head to the side, frowning. "So, what do you say. Will you lend the Brotherhood of Steel a hand?"
Aubrey pursed her lips. This man spoke like her old CO, and it unnerved her. "Who are the Brotherhood of Steel?"
Danse sighed again. "Our order seeks to understand the nature of technology: it's power; it's meaning to us as humans. And we fight to secure that power from those who would abuse it."
Aubrey quirked an eyebrow. "Your cause seems noble enough." Provided it doesn't get out of hand…
"I'm pleased you agree." His lips formed the ghost of a smirk. "There are very few outside the Brotherhood who understand the gravity of the situation we're facing as a species. Now, I'll ask again: Will you help us?"
Aubrey turned to Preston, who gave a small nod. "Alright. We'll help."
"Outstanding." Danse nodded, turning on his heels. "If you're worried, don't. Trust me, I wouldn't undertake this mission if I weren't confident in your abilities." He shrugged, an awkward movement in the Power Armor, before starting to speak to his squadmates.
Aubrey could feel her face twist into a look of disapproval. "How can he be confident in my abilities if he met me less than 10 minutes ago?" She muttered, patting her leg to call Dogmeat to her side.
Preston shrugged. "Hell if I know."
"Alright, civilians. It's time to prove your worth." Danse turned back to them, his armor thumping heavily on the old concrete. "Head into the Police Station and resupply yourselves as best you can. Then let me know when you're ready to begin." He didn't wait for a response before opening the door, letting it swing closed behind him.
"Charming, isn't he?" Aubrey deadpanned.
"Sure seems the military type. Sounds like one of the old Trainer Sergeants from the Minutemen."
"Ah… well, it's good to know the position of Overzealous Drill Sergeant survived the apocalypse." She muttered as she opened the door to the police station. "At least he had the decency to ask for help, rather than just try and conscript us."
"I just wonder what the Brotherhood is doing all the way out here. I haven't heard of them operating in the Commonwealth." He scoffed. "As if we didn't have enough problems."