<<UserID:Webb>> *Singing quietly* Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder...
*A long sigh, then silence.*
Let’s be honest, Webb. You’ve got more than enough firewood at this point.
There’s another reason you’re taking your sweet time going back to that campsite.
Why did I even tell her she could come along? Lord knows I’d sleep better without one of them around, even if she doesn’t seem cut from the same cloth... or clipped from the same sheet metal.
Still... “cloudy with a chance of friendship”? This is what you get for listening to little lunatics. Just because this particular lunatic was a kid with funny headgear who looked like he needed a good meal doesn’t mean he had anything more useful to say than the shaggy fellows panhandling in the streets of New Reno.
What did he call himself? The Forecaster? Poor little fella. He apparently lives at the trading post we passed through today, after we said our goodbyes to our guitar-playing friend and kept heading north on Route 95.
An hour or so along the way, we overtook a few traveling merchants also going north, leading a brahmin train loaded with salvage and supplies. They’d been hit once by raiders -- Jackals, from the sound of it -- and had fought them off, but they’d lost a guard in the skirmish and one of the merchants had taken a round to the shoulder.
They were cautious at first, but when we didn’t try to shoot or eat them, they relaxed a bit, and I patched up the wounded woman -- the bullet had gone straight through, thankfully -- and rigged her up with a sling in exchange for some food, fresh water, and a pocketful of .357 rounds.
We traveled the rest of the morning together -- safety in numbers, after all, and word was there were more raiders the closer you got to New Vegas, at least on the southern and western sides -- and they filled us in on the road ahead.
Turns out there’s a fairly well-established trading post at the junction of Route 95 and 93, which some mathematically-minded locals have dubbed the 188, in what apparently passes for rapier wit around here.
When we finally arrived an hour or so past midday, I was pleasantly surprised. It certainly wasn’t a town, but they’ve got some shacks and buildings set up, along with old buses and trailers that serve as walls and flophouses for people passing through. Several other caravans were stopped there as well, and the comforting babble of hawking and haggling filled the place. Plenty of NCR milling around the place, too, keeping things orderly, but they mostly kept to themselves.
From the upper level, situated on a hill and an overpass, you could even see Vegas off to the west, walled and glittering in the afternoon sun, with that oval-topped tower looming over everything.
I wished our traveling companions good luck with their trading, and Boone and I set out to see what was on offer.
Our first stop was the Forecaster, a boy who couldn’t have been older than ten wearing an odd piece of headgear. Apparently an orphan, he lives at the 188 and earns his keep selling his “thoughts” -- sort of like one of those fortune tellers you occasionally get with traveling shows or fairs back west.
I rummaged through my packs and gave him one of my warmer blankets and some cans of food -- he looked cold, and far too thin -- and he insisted on giving me a few thoughts in exchange. At first, I declined, but he looked so miserable and determined that I caved in and listened to what he had to say.
Most of it was political gossip related to the NCR/Legion conflict draped in symbolism -- the Bull and the Bear clashing in the east, with a light shining out from Vegas -- but one comment was more immediate in import. He said there was a girl here named Veronica, with her heart wrapped up and carried with her. And like an old weather broadcast, he forecast that it was “cloudy, with a chance of friendship.”
Goddamn kids. I should know better than to listen to them any more.
We left him wrapped in the blanket and digging into some canned beans, and I did my best to unload the remainder of my bulky salvage from REPCONN and Nipton on the other traders in exchange for caps, chems, and ammunition for Boone and me. Made out pretty well, too, and my back thanks me for the reduced load.
The best find was a rude son of a *Expletive Deleted* named Alexander, who turned out to be with that Gun Runners organization the Cassidy woman had mentioned back at the Mojave Outpost. Usually, his stock was just for the local NCR reps and supply sergeants, but I talked gun maintenance with him for a bit and showed him some of my more unusual salvage and ammunition, and he eventually opened up his stock, laying out some useful calibers and a few replacement parts for my revolver, including a cylinder in pristine shape.
Boone and I eventually made our way to the little shack that passes for a tavern, which had some decent kebabs and even better whiskey on offer. Not the pre-war stuff, of course, but not rad-laden rotgut, either. I bought some for Boone and myself, as well as a round for an arms trader sharing the bar who had apparently gotten drummed out of the NCR for refusing to flog deserters.
While we were eating, I chatted with the owners, a father and daughter named Samuel and Michelle Kerr who had left Primm for brighter pastures before things had gotten especially bad down there. They confirmed that business had been pretty good recently, thanks to the problems on the Long 15 funneling more traffic to Route 95, but they mentioned concerns about Legion activity to the east, especially around a town called Nelson. Boone got very quiet at that -- more so than usual, even.
I asked the Kerrs, and anyone else who seemed in a talkative mood, about Checkers or his Khan goons, but no one had seen anyone like that come through. Maybe they’d stayed off the main roads -- Boulder City still seems like the best bet. With any luck, we should reach it, and them, tomorrow, and see an end to this whole sorry business.
As we were finishing up, a young woman, probably in her mid-twenties and wearing a hooded robe, slid onto the bench beside me and said she’d overhead me talking about heading towards Boulder City. I allowed that was the case, and she introduced herself as Veronica Santangelo -- the “Veronica” mentioned by the Forecaster, I suppose -- and started in with a barrage of questions, peppering them with information about herself.
While asking about my time in the Mojave -- my answers were truthful but spare, I suppose I’d say in retrospect -- she also shared the fact that she hailed from a bunker or a vault, calling it a “hole in the ground”, but she’d had some sort of falling out with her family. That probably should have gotten my hackles up right there, but she had a good sense of humor and was just so damned cheerful that I must have put my cautions aside.
It may just be that I’ve spent so long on my own -- or with Boone and the eyeball, and they barely count, conversationally -- that it was something of a shock to have someone actively engaged in intelligent conversation with me.
And whatever else she may be, she IS intelligent. Most of her questions focused on the problems facing folks living in the Mojave, how they find clean food and water, how they protect themselves, and so on. When she found out I had medical training, she immediately pounced on that, asking detailed and informed questions about the injuries and diseases I’d seen and how the isolated towns made provisions to deal with them -- if they dealt with them at all.
I got rather caught up in the discussion, I’ll admit. ED-E bobbed nearby, apparently listening as well, but Boone soon wandered off and began custom-packing ammunition for his .307 rifle at a workbench behind the Kerrs’ booth.
Eventually, Santangelo steered the conversation towards the other issues facing the wasters in the Mojave, and she asked if I was familiar with the Brotherhood of Steel at all.
I stared at her for a moment, then allowed that I’d heard they’d been raiding some caravans locally, taking anything shiny. I figured there wasn’t any sense digging up the past with this poor girl.
Maybe if I had, I’d be sleeping soundly back in camp right now, rather than poking around in the dark for firewood that we don’t need.
She nodded, paused a moment -- the first hesitation I’d seen from her since she sat down and started talking a mile a minute -- then blurted out that she’d like to come along with us, to Boulder City and wherever we went next. She claimed she wanted to see more of the Mojave and learn about day-to-day life there first hand, and it was certainly safer to travel about with company these days.
Most of all, she said she wanted to lend a hand where she could, and she figured traveling with a doctor would be a good way to do that.
Might be that I neglected to underline the fact that I was currently hunting down someone for what basically amounts to bloody-minded revenge. Ah well.
To be fair, she also mentioned that she wanted to find a dress.
I couldn’t imagine Boone would object -- “hmmph” doesn’t count as a real objection, does it? -- and ED-E seems to enjoy additional targets for his smug beeping, so I said she was welcome to tag along, at least for a while, but I did have to ask if she could handle herself when things inevitably got rough.
She gave me a look that spoke volumes -- most of them probably titled something like “Get Over Yourself, Grandpa” -- and pulled aside her robe enough to reveal a Colt 6520 in a low-slung crossdraw holster, as well as something that gave me chills: an armored glove with a pneumatic ram over the knuckles, something known colloquially as a “power fist”.
That’s serious hardware, not something I expected to see on a kid on walkabout in the Mojave, even if she did come from a hole in the ground.
I looked at her, and she must have seen the unspoken question in my face. She smiled, looking almost embarrassed, and said that she was happy I’d agreed to let her come along, but there was one other thing she had to tell me first.
That “hole in the ground” she’d grown up in? That family she’d mentioned?
They were the Brotherhood of Steel.
Of course. Of *Lengthy String of Expletives Deleted* course.
It caught me by surprise -- hell, it almost literally knocked me on my ass. It MUST have been the surprise, or maybe it was the whiskey from lunch, or maybe me remembering what the Forecaster had said, or maybe I just like the feeling of someone twisting that knife deeper into my gut, but before I could stop myself, I said “welcome aboard” and told her to get her things.
She beamed brighter than the goddamn sun and went scurrying off to collect her kit. I sat there for another moment, still stunned, then pushed a fistful of caps onto the bar to pay for lunch and the drinks and went to let Boone know we were leaving.
I think that may be the last thing I’ve said today, at least until I told everyone I was going out to get firewood.
We set out east on Route 93, and Santangelo spent the whole afternoon talking away, telling stories, jokes, and asking about settlements we’d already seen. When she realized she wasn’t getting much in the way of replies, she switched her focus to ED-E without any sign of disappointment, examining him with great interest, discussing other robots she’d seen and how he wasn’t quite like any of them.
I mostly tuned it out. For the remaining hours of daylight as we walked, my thoughts were back in Modoc, with my girls and the day I’d come home to find them and everything else burnt to ashes.
Just as the sun hit the western mountains, we came around a curve in the road and spotted Lake Mead. Even with my head in the past, it was a beautiful thing, with the light from behind us dancing across the surface. The whole thing is full of cool, clear water, almost completely radiation-free. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
This wouldn’t be a bad place to settle down, honestly, if a body had a mind to.
We stopped for the night at an old pre-war campsite just up the hill from the shore. We spotted a few creatures -- not sure what kind -- moving around near the shore and out in the water as we were making camp at sunset, but thus far they’ve stayed where they were, and I have no desire to go investigate further now that it’s gotten dark.
After kicking together a fire with some mesquite and driftwood that was strewn about the campsite, I left Boone and Santangelo with the food supplies to get started on supper, telling them I was going to get more wood.
And that’s where I am now. I’ve been wandering around aimlessly uphill from the campsite for at least half an hour, gathering limbs and talking to myself. I’m just not sure what I’m going to do about this Veronica Santangelo.
Why did I tell her she could come along? WAS it just surprise? Was I actually putting faith in the predictions of a malnourished orphan? Or am I subconsciously trying to make myself look this issue in the face?
Come on, Webb, you know you could barely get through those psychology textbooks without falling asleep. Don’t try to self-diagnose. But the fact remains, now that I know where she’s from, I can’t look at her without thinking of Jess and Callie.
It’s not what she looks like. It’s what she is. What she represents.
Even so, I just can’t shake the feeling that she’s not a bad kid, plain a simple. But if that’s the case...
...what the hell is she doing with a den of vipers like the Brotherhood?
Enough of this. Long past time you got this wood back to the camp and got some shut-eye. You can always tell her to get lost tomorrow.
*Footsteps resume, along with quiet, slow singing.*
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky...