Love Never Changes
Chapter 4

Copyright© 2020 by StarFleet Carl

“You know, you’re going to spoil me, with the showers and ... well, everything else. I love the feel of your skin on mine, the way our bodies fit together.”

Gwen shook her head. “From what you’ve told me, you deserve every bit of that, and even more. While you were showering, rather than join you this time, I issued Edwards some orders to take three of his best guards and go through the hidden Vault. If you want to roll over and let me out of bed, we can get dressed and go see what he’s found.”

“Not really, but I suppose we should.” I turned over, sitting up on the side of the bed. Gwen joined me, her bare leg against mine. She was watching me with concern.

“What’s wrong, Tina?”

“Just a little melancholy is all. This Vault and the way you run it, well, you’re all the closest thing to my time, my original time. And yet...”

“And yet none of us can truly relate to what it was like before the war, because none of us lived through it. We’ve been ... hiding down here. I think some of that is due for a change.” She stood up while I remained sitting. The sight of her bare ass next to my face was too much, so I leaned over and gave her a big kiss on her left butt cheek.

“I have to be very careful, Gwen McNamara. I could find myself falling in love with you. You’re bright, caring, a leader, and you’re beautiful.”

I heard the change in tone in her voice with her response to me. “I know you have other things to do in the Commonwealth. Find out about your son, what happened to him. I understand. You’ve shown me something special, and you’re someone that can be in charge like I have to be. Just know this. Whether it’s with me or not, you’ll always be home here.”

With that, I stood up and took her in my arms, giving her a hug. I could feel her tears on my skin. I gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead, then let her go so we could both get dressed for the day. After getting ready, Gwen opened the door to her security office.

“Ah, ma’am. Officer Edwards and his party returned just a short time ago. They’ve brought back ... well, many things. Edwards and Doctor Penske are in medical with Doctor Forsythe. The robots are there as well.” He reached down with a hand, and Dog stood up from behind the desk. “I’m going to miss him. He’s been very well behaved.”

“Very well, we’ll join them there.”

Dog and I followed Gwen to medical. Through the window, I could see several tables pushed together in the middle, with Curie and Doctor Forsythe poking around in the corpses of multiple mole rats. Edwards, Doctor Penske, and Codsworth were looking at the remains of some plants spread out on another table. The medical assistant, Rachel, was busy with a notebook, trying to record what everyone was saying.

Gwen walked in and asked, “Okay, it looks like you’ve found something. What have you got?”

Curie said, “Ah, madam! The doctor and I were discussing the genetic and biological modifications made to my sweet darlings here. Some of the ones now present are not ones that were implemented by the researchers or myself. It seems that after I quit working on them 87 years ago, they continued to mutate.”

Dr. Forsythe sounded excited. “Yes. Curie showed Rachel and I the broad spectrum cure she had created from them. I think that I can use the blood from these creatures as the basis for replicating that cure.”

“Uh, Doctor, not to put a damper on your enthusiasm, but so far as I know, all of the mole rats in the hidden Vault are dead.”

“Ah, Miss Wilson, you’re correct. That doesn’t matter. All I have to do is have some as the basis. Doctor Penske uses genetic cloning for her plants, so we always have fresh and non-irradiated food. All we have to do is figure out the principle for cloning this blood. I need security to gather all the remaining corpses, so we can drain their blood and freeze most of it for storage, while we experiment on the rest.”

Gwen turned to Edwards. “What do you think, Edwards?”

“Already given the orders, ma’am. Even though the area over there is a bit chewed up, and I mean that in the literal sense, the teeth on these things are man killers, we should have all the corpses gathered and drained within a day or so. After that, Calvin wants to lead an engineering team over there to gather tools and supplies. We saw several caches of items that will help us keep things going here for a good while.”

“Good. It seems that our visitor here has helped us in many ways.”

Curie spoke up. “With my passing on of all my knowledge, I am excited to find other men of science in the world. May I follow you, Codsworth, and the cute Dog?”

“Sure, why not. We’ll be leaving soon, so don’t start any long books.”

“Ah, madam jests, of course.”

There was a knock at the door. I turned, to see the DeLuca twins standing there. Bobby

looked different, more alert. “I’m sorry, we can come back later, I just wanted to thank Rachel for that treatment. I’m ... I’m so sorry for all the trouble I caused.”

His sister said, “So am I. Bobby is clean now, and he’s ready to actually be in charge of Old Rusty now, to get things in the reactor room up and running fully. We’ve talked about it, and I think the only way I can make amends for the personal trouble that I’ve caused to Alexis and Erin is to leave the Vault.” Her voice trembled in fear.

I looked at her. “Tina, what’s outside of this Vault is dirty, dangerous, and can be scary. But your comments are very adult, accepting responsibility. I have some friends making a community in Sanctuary Hills. You’d be welcome there.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I think I’d like that.”

I didn’t tell her that with two unattached and available men that she’d have something to keep her itch scratched if she wanted. I figured I’d let her find that out on her own.

We spent the next couple of hours getting things ready for all of us to leave. There was a bit of a party atmosphere in the atrium, as so many things that had been hanging over the Vault for so long had some resolution. I did take Holt Combes aside when no one was looking.

“Hey, Holt, come here a minute.” He came over. I reached down and started rubbing his crotch through his Vault suit. He smiled, becoming erect almost instantly. I then grabbed hold of his cock through the suit, twisting and squeezing it, hard. “The only woman that should be feeling your cock from now on is Alexis. If I even hear even a hint of gossip that you’re unfaithful to her, and that includes with your eyes, I promise you that I won’t be squeezing your cock off, I’ll be ripping it off by the roots and feeding it to my Dog. Do I make myself clear, you shithead?”

The only thing he could do was nod, he was in agony.

“Good boy.” I let him go and waited for it. He didn’t disappoint me, starting to swing at me. I let his arm almost get to me before I deflected it with my elbow, then ducked down and hit him full force with a stiff hand right in his crotch. That took all of the fight out of him, and the sound of him vomiting brought Officer Edwards over.

“Everything okay over here?” Edwards voice sounded concerned.

“Oh, I think it will be, now. Holt is going to be a fine and upstanding citizen of Vault 81 now, being very faithful to his wife and a good father to his daughter. After he cleans up the mess he just made.”

I stepped back. Edwards leaned over to me, whispering. “Thank you, ma’am. I know I was a pain in the ass when you first came in. I sincerely apologize for that.” He turned towards Holt. “Come on, Holt. You know better than this, being drunk at a party. Get up, get a mop, and get this cleaned up. Vault 81 has a bright future ahead of it now, thanks to our friend here. You don’t want to ruin this party, do you?” The warning in his voice was very clear.

I got back into my power armor, and headed out with Tina DeLuca. Gwen and Calvin followed us all the way to the outside entrance. From the expression on all their faces, I suspected this was probably the first time they’d actually seen the outside. One of their Commonwealth suppliers was just walking up.

“Oh, hey. Not used to a welcoming committee when I get here. You ready to dicker for my supplies?”

Calvin spoke up. “Cricket, we’ll buy the tools you have, at the usual rate. And we have a different request for you. This young lady needs to get to Sanctuary. Can you and your guards escort her there, for a reasonable fee?”

“I don’t go that far north, but I know who does. I’m getting ready to swing back to Bunker Hill, she can meet up with Lucas Miller there, he can hook her up with Trashcan Carla. That’ll cost you... 400 caps.”

“I think that’s a bit much, considering that you’re a regular supplier here,” I said.

She stuttered a bit; it was obvious she was using chems. “Okay, fine. 350.”

“Reasonable, for Tina to be delivered, unharmed, to Sanctuary. Will you take trade for that, or does it have to be cash up front?”

“I always trade. Here’s what I got.” She started showing me her merchandise. She had ammo available for some of my weapons. We bargained for a bit, with me getting some ammo and her getting two of the pieces of power armor that Codsworth was carrying.

“Pleasure doing business with you.” Cricket started to walk away. I yelled at her. She stopped. “Oh, sorry, I tend to forget. Come on, girl. You’ll get to Sanctuary safe and sound in a few days.”

Tina started walking after her. I told her, “Tell Preston Garvey I said you can live there, and he and Sturges will treat you right, okay? She nodded and kept going.

From behind me, I heard Gwen tell Calvin to go back in, that she’d be along in a minute. He started to protest, then realized she wanted privacy. He went back into the cavern. I took my helmet off. Even with it off, I still towered over Gwen, due to the armor. To make up the difference in height, I got down on one knee.

“I’m not doing this to propose to you, Gwen,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.

“I know. And I wouldn’t accept if you were. Not now, not yet. That doesn’t mean in the future that I wouldn’t accept, though. Just ... you mean a lot to me. More than I thought anyone ever would. Be careful.” She carefully leaned in over my armor and gave me a brief kiss, then turned and hurried back in after Calvin.

“Mum...”

“Just zip it for now, Codsworth. You don’t know all the dynamics that existed between Nate and I. Not by a long shot.”

“No, Mum, I don’t. I’m just saying that if you’re happy, Mum, that’s all that matters to me.”

I looked at him. “Why, Codsworth, that’s a quite surprising and welcome attitude.” I put my helmet back on. “Come on, let’s get this circus on the road.”

We headed around the south side of the Chestnut Hillock Reservoir. There were several houses, or remnants thereof, anyway, around it. As we got closer to the houses, some flying insects headed our way. “Time to act like a bug zapper!” I said.

Curie took me literally. I didn’t know until then that she was equipped with a laser. She began firing at the bugs. Codsworth moved in front of me and started up his flamethrower. I didn’t have to fire a single round. “Thank you, both of you. This is much better, and easier on my ammo supply.”

Continuing east, we started entering apartment complexes and housing. Most of the buildings that were still standing were boarded up completely. I could hear shots from the north, echoing in the empty canyon walls of the nearly dead city. There were a couple of rudimentary signs with arrows pointing ahead, saying that Diamond City was that way. I had been right. It was Fenway Park.

As we got closer, I saw some barricades, along with active machine gun turrets. Armed guards were walking a perimeter. I almost laughed when I saw their attire. They were wearing face guards and chest protectors like an umpire or catcher would wear. One of them stopped in his tracks, staring at us as we got closer.

“Now YOU have the right idea. Power Armor. The only way to travel.” He nodded his head to his right. “You’re looking for Diamond City? Just follow the signs.”

We continued onward. The sight of the ballpark from the outside brought crashing home to me once again how much things had changed. Sheets of steel siding blocked openings, totally changing the lines of the stadium. I was surprised that the traffic bollards and the statue of the ball player were still standing. Instead of the pristine and highly decorated facade I remembered, from where the World Series was being played, the patina of rust and decay seemed everywhere, even on the closed gate.

I could see an irate woman wearing a red trench coat and a beret with warm black hair sticking out from under it, at a speaker next to the gate. As we got closer, I could hear her as well. She had a loud, brash voice.

“You open this gate right NOW, Danny Sullivan! I live here. You can’t just lock me out!”

From the speaker, I could hear a young man’s apologetic voice. “I’m sorry, but Mayor McDonough’s really steamed, Piper. Saying that article you wrote was all lies. The whole city’s in a tizzy.”

“Dammit, Danny, open UP!”

“I’m sorry, I got orders not to let you in. I’m just doing my job.”

“Doing your JOB? Protecting Diamond City means keeping me out, is that it? ‘Oh, look, it’s the scary reporter!’ Boo! Stop playing around, Danny! I’m standing out in the OPEN here, for crying out loud!”

I had gotten closer to the gate by this time, such that she heard me giggle at her plight. Turning her head quickly and giving us the quick once over, Piper said in a low voice, “Shh! Play along.” Raising her voice, she said, “What was that? You said you’re a trader up from Quincy? You have enough supplies to keep the general store stocked for weeks?” Turning back to the speaker, she continued. “You hear that, Danny? You going to open the gate and let us in? Or are you going to be the one talking to Crazy Myrna about losing out on all these supplies?”

Sounding defeated, Danny said, “Geez, all right. No need to make it personal, Piper. Give me a minute.”

As we heard the sound of the gate starting to open, Piper looked at me. “Better head inside quick, before ole’ Danny catches on to the bluff.”

“Sounds good. Let’s go.”

A rather stuffy looking man in a business suit was waiting just inside the gate. “Piper! Who let YOU back inside? I told Sullivan to keep that gate shut! You devious, rabble rousing slanderer! The ... the level of dishonesty in that paper of yours! I’ll have that printer scrapped for parts.”

“Ooh, is that a statement, Mr. McDonough? ‘Tyrant mayor shuts down the press?’ Why don’t we ask this newcomer? You support the news? Because the mayor’s threatening to throw free speech in the dumpster.” She was waving her arms theatrically, then pointed at me.

“Always believed in freedom the press. What is this place now, anyway?”

Curie also spoke up. “Without free and unbiased information, an electorate’s decisions would be all wrong.”

McDonough must’ve noticed me for the first time. He shook his head and cleared his throat. “Why, this is the safest place in all the Commonwealth, with the strongest community and highest standards available. We have stores, doctors, schools, power, running water, and the Wall as our sacred protector. You’ll learn more about the Wall soon, I’m sure. But enough of this muckraker, what brings you to the Great Green Jewel of the Commonwealth?”

Piper snickered. “Greatest house of cards in the Commonwealth until the wind blows.”

McDonough coughed in annoyance. “Ignore her and our argument. You look like Diamond City material. How can we help you?”

“I’m trying to find someone. They killed my husband, kidnapped my son.”

Piper chimed in again. “Well, McDonough? Diamond City Security going to investigate this? How about all the other kidnapping reports you’ve been ignoring?”

McDonough seemed ruffled now. “Don’t listen to her. While I am afraid that our security team can’t follow every case that comes through, I’m confident you can find help here. Diamond City has every conceivable service known to man. One of our great citizens can surely find the time to help you.”

“Oh, well I’m sure the mayor of a great city must know everyone. Who can help me?”

He sounded nervous now. “Well, there is one private citizen. Nick Valentine. A detective, of sorts, who specializes in tracking people down. Usually for debts. Now, I have to get going. I’m sorry Diamond City Security doesn’t have time to help, but I’m sure Mister Valentine charges a reasonable fee.” With that he turned on his heel and headed into the city.

Piper looked at me, her hazel green eyes flashing with intrigue now. Dammit, I just left one “I’m impressed, not everyone can claw information out of McDonough’s tightfisted hands. Hmm, why don’t you stop by my office after you see Valentine?” Her voice lowered, intrigued. “I think I just found my next story.” She turned to head up the stairs as well.

One of the security guards came walking up. He didn’t have a helmet on, and his bright red hair was almost the same color as his cheeks. “So, you’re that trader Piper was talking about? Something tells me she’s pulled the wool over my eyes again, right?”

“Sounds like she’s done this before.”

He sounded amused. “All the time. Thing is, sometimes she’s bluffing, and sometimes there really is a group of 50 Raiders just over the hill, screaming for blood. If it was just me, I would have just let the both of you in, no hassle, but the mayor’s calling the shots. And, well, you saw how mad he is.”

“A pissed off mayor can’t be a good thing. Sorry if I caused you trouble, Danny.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway, welcome to Diamond City and all that. I gotta get back to work.”

Codsworth sounded puzzled. “Miss Tina, what was THAT all about?”

“I’d say that a politician has an issue with a reporter. Nice to see that some things haven’t changed over the centuries.”

We went up the stairs leading into the ballpark. At the top of the stairs, I simply stopped and stared. “What the hell did they do to this place?”

The stairway led down towards what had been the infield. Small tin shacks, awnings, a couple of small travel trailer bodies, and even a school bus were visible to me. Some of the shacks were up in the bleachers. In the middle, about where the pitcher’s mound had been, was a large structure with smoke coming from it, surrounded by awnings. I did a double take. It looked like a lunch counter ... being run by a Protectron. Looking down the stairs, I saw Piper talking to a young girl and decided that it was time to talk to her and find out what was going on here.

Piper went into the building before we got to the bottom of the stairs. The sign above it read, ‘Publick Occurrences’. Someone knew their history, it seemed. I opened the door and went on in. Piper was sitting on a couch, and looked up in surprise.

“Well, fancy meeting you here, Blue. Even though I know you haven’t had time to check with Nick, how about getting out of that power armor for a bit and sit down with me.”

“Sounds reasonable.” I did so, taking a seat across from her. “It’s not exactly been a great few days. But why Blue?”

“Even though you had on power armor, the Vault Suit was still visible under it. Between that, the Pip Boy, and the whole fish out of water look, it’s a dead giveaway. You’re a Vault dweller. What do you think of Diamond City now that you’re in here?”

“My favorite ballpark has become a shantytown. This is just great.”

She grinned. “Gotta love the sarcasm. Here’s the deal. I want an interview. Your life story in print. I think it’s time Diamond City had a little outside perspective on the Commonwealth.”

“It’s not sarcasm if it’s truth. Oh, well. What’s in it for me?”

“Well, there’s got to be something interesting, considering you’re wearing power armor and have two robots and a dog with you. So, tell you what, you answer my questions and give me a good interview, and I’ll come with you, too. Watch your back while you get used to the world above ground, and maybe pick up a story or two along the way.”

I grinned. “Sure, what the hell. The more the merrier, right? Go ahead.” Something about the sparkle in her eyes. What’s wrong with me?

She pulled out a pencil and paper. “So, I know you’re from a Vault. How would you describe your time on the inside?”

“My family and I, most of our neighborhood, was cryogenically frozen. I didn’t spend much time awake in the Vault.”

Piper looked up, startled. “Wait. They boxed you up in a fridge? The whole time? Are you saying you were alive before the War?”

“That was more than 200 years ago. Why’s that important? I’m here now, aren’t I?”

“Oh, my god. ‘The Women Out of Time.’ Don’t you get it? You know what this place was like before the war that gave us this lovely landscape of demolished buildings and nuclear radiation every ten feet. That’s definitely news. You said there was violence in the Vault, your son was kidnapped. Did anyone else survive?”

“No, the place was an abattoir when I woke up. Everyone else was dead. I ... I used to live nearby.” I pointed at Codsworth. “He had waited for me for more than 200 years, to return from the Vault, tried to keep the home up as good as he could. Now, he’s one of my companions.”

“Wow. So, what do you think about Diamond City and the Commonwealth?”

“I’ve helped some people find what they hope will be a home for themselves. I’ve also helped Vault 81 with a few issues, too. That’s where I picked up Curie, inside there. In spite of everything that has happened, people are trying to survive and to rebuild. It gives me hope for the future.”

“Strong words, Blue. So, someone kidnapped your son. Do you think the Institute was involved?”

“I don’t know, maybe.” I shrugged. “What’s the Institute?”

Piper looked puzzled. “That, Blue, is the biggest mystery in the Commonwealth. No one really knows who or where they are, but their handiwork is all over. Synths. Synthetic people. Sent from their hidden labs to do the Institute’s dirty work. They even sometimes replace a person with a Synth double. A little covert agent no one would suspect.”

“Ah, now I understand why the mayor’s pissed at you. He wants to keep his head in the sand and you’re trying to expose ... well, something, anyway.”

Piper was excited. “EXACTLY! With some of the decisions he’s made lately, expelling the ghouls, turning a blind eye to kidnapping reports, I think it’s possible he’s a Synth. One of the human looking ones, since McDonough’s been here a long time. Not one of the metal or primitive ones, with plastic looking skin. Those are what cleaned out and killed everyone in University Point a while back.”

“I suppose it’s possible this Institute’s involved. Someone went to a lot of trouble to break into a sealed Vault to kidnap a baby.”

“Just curious, what was it like back then? What did you do before the war?”

“My neighborhood had blue skies, green grass, clean streets. I had a nice, new home, with the latest appliances to help with daily tasks. Friendly neighbors. I was the lead attorney for RobCo in Boston, handled their corporate side of things, had just returned to work from maternity leave after having Shaun. Balancing work and home life was challenging.”

Piper grinned. “I bet. I can relate, a little. I’ve been raising my little sister.” Her face changed, grew serious. “So, for the last part of our interview, I’d like to do something different. I want you to make a statement to Diamond City directly. The threat of kidnapping is all but ignored in the Commonwealth. Everyone wants to pretend it doesn’t happen. What would you say to someone who’s lost a loved one, but might be too scared, or too numb to the world, to look for them?”

I was shocked. “Wait, people just ignore kidnapping?”

“Yeah, Blue, you haven’t noticed? That’s another reason McDonough wanted me out. You grow up in the Commonwealth, and eventually someone is going to get taken. And people just say, ‘Well, couldn’t been worse. Could’ve been killed by Super Mutants or Raider attacks or Feral ghouls.’ They just give up. Maybe they’ll find a little inspiration in your words.”

“Giving up is never an option. I was nearly killed at Valdez and in Anchorage by Chinese soldiers, but I kept on fighting even though I was a civilian. So, no matter how much you might want to give up, don’t. You have to have hope. That you’ll see them again. Or, at least that you’ll know the truth.”

“Wow. That’s ... probably the most amazing interview I’ve ever had. It’ll take me a little time to get this all together, but I think your story is going to give Diamond City plenty to talk about. And my word is good, too. If you want me to tag along, I will. And I’ll give you an introduction to Nick Valentine. I think he considers me a friend. You’ll like his sign, it’s neon with a heart on it.”

The words from Mama Murphy echoed in my mind when she said that, sending a little chill down my spine. It may have echoed in my voice a little. “Okay, fine. Let’s go find the bright heart. I presume it’s okay to leave my armor here? I want to save some juice while I can.”

“Sure, that’s fine.” She got up and headed for the door. I followed her, stopping to pull the fusion core from the armor. She nodded. “That’s one way to keep it safe. People normally don’t just carry fusion cores around.”

I followed her through the town, to what I would generously call an alley from before the war, where there was a neon sign advertising the Valentine Detective Agency. The glowing heart on the sign made me remember what else Mama Murphy had said. Piper didn’t notice my hesitation and simply walked on in. After a moment, I followed her.

A woman wearing a vest and scarf and a poodle skirt was sitting at a desk, mumbling to herself. She looked up when we came in and said in a kind voice, “Another stray coming in from the rain. Afraid you’re too late. Office is closed.”

I was puzzled. “Wait. Who are you? Are you the detective?”

She smiled. “Me? No, I’m Nick’s secretary, Ellie Perkins. Handle his appointments, his papers, that sort of thing. Well, that’s what I used to do, anyway, but now Nick’s disappeared, and I can’t keep a detective agency open without a detective.”

Piper almost yelped. “Nicky’s missing? What has he gotten himself into this time?”

She sighed. “Nick was working a case. Skinny Malone’s gang had kidnapped a young woman, and he tracked them down to their hideout in Park Street Station. There’s an old Vault down there they used as a base. I told Nick he was walking into a trap, but he just smiled and walked out the door like he always does.”

“Another Vault. I wonder how many of those things they had around here. Park Street Station, eh? Sounds like someplace deep and dark, and kidnappers would definitely be people with cruel intentions.” I closed my eyes and thought for a moment. “Couple of miles northeast of here ... east edge of the Common, if I remember right.”

Codsworth said, “Indeed, mum. We’re on the right track, then.”

“Anything else you can tell us before we head out to find Nick?”

Ellie looked surprised. “Oh, well, then sure. Just a moment.” She reached down and pulled out an old, plastic covered map of the Boston area transit system. “Yes, it’s here. Um, the Common is a dangerous place, so be careful around it. Skinny Malone is from Goodneighbor. That means he’s in the well-pressed suits and machine gun school of thuggery. Style and body count are what he cares about.”

“Wonderful,” I said sarcastically. “Hope I have enough ammo, then.”

“Here, just a second.” She pulled out a piece and paper and wrote on it. “Arturo owes Nick several favors. This should get you a discount on anything you buy from him.” At my puzzled look, Ellie continued. “Commonwealth Weaponry, it’s owned by Arturo Rodriguez. It’s in the market.”

“Come on, Blue, I’ll show you. Thanks, Ellie.” Piper smiled at her, then led us back out. “So, the person who investigates kidnappings is missing himself.” She chuckled a little. “Sounds like I picked the right person to follow with you, Blue.”

I took her by the arm, and pulled her back around, to face me. The expression on her face was a combination of startled and fear. “Piper, if we’re going to be together for a while, then let’s get one thing straight. My name is not Blue. My name is Tina. I’m not going to ask for much from you, but I demand that.”

She stammered a minute, then finally said, “Um, oh ... okay, Tina it is.” She lowered her eyes and quietly said, “Sorry about that.”

“Just setting some guidelines, okay? I grew up in this city, but from my perspective, less than a month ago it was a vibrant town, full of life. I was talking to my husband about getting tickets to see a ballgame here, in this ballpark. Then you go to sleep and wake up to find that’s it 200 years later, and everything you know is gone. Oh, some of the places are still there, but now they’re ruins. From a land of plentiful resources to scrambling to survive on whatever remnants are left.”

Piper choked up a little. “I ... I’m truly sorry, Tina. I never thought about that. I ... I was too excited, I guess.” She looked at me, her hazel green eyes slightly damp.

Seeing her upset made me a little upset myself. “Look, Piper, I’m sorry if I came on a little strong there. It’s just ... I’ve been in combat for my life before, more than once. If we’re going to be out and about, well, I want a partner with me, not someone who’ll get distracted by something shiny just before the fecal matter hits the oscillating rotary air mover.”

She laughed, a deep, throaty chuckle. “Before the shit hits the fan. I like that. C’mon, Tina, let’s go see Arturo.”

Our group went to the marketplace. Someone in a baseball uniform was hollering about “Swatters. Get your swatter here!” I saw another sign, for Fallon’s Basement. Another man was peddling chems. Two other stores had signs and people hawking wares. One was Diamond City Surplus, the other Commonwealth Weaponry. A dark-haired Latino man was behind the counter of the latter.

“Ah, hello, Piper. And you must be the new girl. Am I right?”

I shook my head, almost in disbelief. “Yeah, I’m the new girl in town.”

He smiled at me. “What can I say, word travels fast in Diamond City. No offense meant, of course. Anyway, my name’s Arturo Rodriguez. We can talk about guns, or maybe you wanna consider something a little more up close and personal?”

“I think I’m good on weapons, from long distance to short range. I’ve used a bit of my ammunition, though. What do you have in .45 and 10mm? And how old is it, how do I know it’s any good?”

He laughed a little. “Ah, the ammunition I sell is all good. I guarantee it.”

“What, do you have your own personal ammunition plant running in a warehouse?”

He looked nervous suddenly. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, miss.”

I pulled my rifle off my shoulder, dropped the magazine from it, and put the rifle on the counter. “Arturo, you said you’re an expert on weapons, take a look at that combat rifle.”

He picked it up, pulled the slide to eject the round remaining in it, then turned it in his hands, examining it. “Match grade receiver, long ported match grade barrel, recoil compensating stock, military grade recon scope, full suppressor. Very nice, and other than some recent use as shown by the minor fouling in the barrel, effectively brand new. I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve never seen one in quite this good of condition.”

“Can you read what’s on the stock plate, on the eject side?”

“Ah, a presentation piece. No wonder it’s so well done. Let me see here, this is small writing.” He squinted a little. “Presented to Tina Wilson, For Courage and Valor, Battle of Valdez, June 18, 2076. Very nice. The date stamp on the receiver and barrel show they were made that same month. An incredible piece of pre-war history.” He looked up at me. “Has it remained in your family since then?”

I thought Piper was going to have a fit, she was coughing and laughing at the same time. “I suppose you could say that. That’s my rifle. I’m Tina Wilson.”

He looked at Piper for help. She got it under control a little. “She’s telling the truth about who she is and how old she is, Arturo. So, you might consider answering her question.”

He looked both ways, then leaned closer to me. In a low voice, he said, “No one must know that I have the ability to create new ammunition. It is the only one in existence I am aware of. The machine, she breaks down every so often. And keeping her supplied with raw materials ... if Myrna was not here, I would not be able to do so.”

In a low voice, I replied, “Would it help if I took a look at it? I’m sure it uses some of the same replicator technology of workstations, some of the same programming.” I held my arm with the Pip-Boy on it up, so he understood me.

“Ah, thank you for the offer, but no. It’s simply a case of maintaining it, is all. Like your rifle, it was designed and built to last a long time.”

I picked my rifle up and put it back over my shoulder on the sling. “Well, then, as I said when we came up, do you have some ammunition? Oh, and we’re going to look for Nick Valentine, he’s gone missing. Ellie gave me this request for a discount.”

“Nick is missing? Mierde! Cost plus 10 percent, then, for any ammunition you need.”

After we had concluded our business with Arturo, Piper and I went to the noodle stand for either a late lunch or early supper. “Did I get a good deal from Arturo just then?”

She snorted, almost blowing a noodle out her nose. “I think you just blew his mind. I pay 4 caps per round for 10mm. You got 45 of them for only 140 caps. And 60 rounds of .45 for only 186 caps? That’s unheard of. That’s at least 300 caps, maybe more if you piss him off.” She took a drink. “But you never mentioned anything about being a war hero in your interview with me, just a survivor.”

“Yeah, well, perhaps later. Is it okay if we leave my power armor in your office? In open country, it’s great. In city streets, it’s a hell of a lot harder to dive into cover when you’re wearing a big target on your back. I saw too many troops get blown to hell that way.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, if you want to. When do you want to head out?”

“It’s getting a bit late tonight. Unless you want to share your bed with me, I need to find someplace to spend the night.” I wasn’t sure how I wanted her to answer this.

She bit her lip, was quiet for a minute, which wasn’t like her. “Um, look, Tina. I’m not saying this in any way that can be misconstrued right now. You intrigue me, not just with your history, but ... with everything about you, and I don’t know why. So, I tell you what. I have a couch at my place, and some extra pillows. I’m not offering to share my bed with you, not yet anyway, but I will let you sleep there.”

I slapped her lightly on the back. “I see this as the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Piper.”

She sickly grinned back. “If I live long enough, it will be, Tina.”

I was relieved to wake up the next morning, to head out. It’s not that the couch wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t as bad as bare ground. I’d grown used to sleeping with the sound of Codsworth doing something in the background. It was just that, after only a couple of days of it, I missed having Gwen’s arms around me.

That, and Piper snored.

But as often happens, behind every cloud was a silver lining. Even though nowadays you’d probably be talking about a radiation cloud dumping acid rain or something else nasty on you, I suppose.

In this case, all I had to do was pull my armor off and try to get as comfortable as possible on the couch. My Vault suit kept my temperature regulated while I slept. Codsworth and Curie went into a low power mode, just monitoring in case of an emergency. And Dog went upstairs to sleep on the bed with Piper’s little sister. With the extra heat generated by the two robots, Dog, and I in her home, apparently during the night Piper had gotten too hot.

Which meant that she had removed her overcoat and the jumpsuit she wore under that and slept in her underwear only. And even her bra had been too much, so when she got out of bed the next morning, I was greeted by the sight of a rather magnificent set of breasts. I could feel myself starting to respond, but quickly got myself under control.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Tina. I, uh, I guess I got a little warm.” Piper started scrambling for her bra and jumpsuit.

“Why be sorry? Those don’t even seem to need a bra; they stand up quite nicely. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m surprised that you have such beautiful looking skin.”

“Ha, you think so? I’m afraid that if I didn’t wear one, I’d end up looking like Becky Fallon. You’d think for someone who owns a clothing store that she would wear better support garments herself.” While she was talking, she continued getting dressed. “As for the skin, well, I do try to take care of myself. No chems, and I try not to over indulge in alcohol. I have responsibilities, after all. Avoid radiation when possible, too. A ghoul can have a long life, but they’re not that pretty. But hey, I’m still a bit warm. How come you’re still in your Vault Suit?”

“Oh, simple. It has a small power pack that helps regulate the temperature of the wearer. I’m guessing it was also designed to report all sorts of vitals to a central monitor like it does to my Pip-Boy, but if I’m not in a Vault, who cares? Curie, is what these were supposed to do?”

“Ah, madam, the Vault Suit can also send details to a Nurse Handy, so that in the event of an emergency, she can render aid. That particular item was not in my programming, as I did scientific research.”

“Temperature regulator, huh? That could come in handy. Don’t suppose you have a spare suit in your pack, do you?”

“I only planned to be gone for a week, so I mostly packed food and ammunition. I went light, even though I was in power armor. A friendly place extended my food supply, so I still have enough for a week. But my extra outer clothes, and extra armor, stayed at home. So, your call, Piper. We head back up to Sanctuary, so you can get a Vault Suit, or we go find Valentine.”

“Not even a choice. Nick.” She yelled up the stairs. “Hey, Nat, are you up and dressed yet?” She frowned. “What’s keeping that girl?”

“Sorry, Piper. I got to playing with the puppy. He’s fun. I’ll be right down.” She put her words into action, charging down the stairs, with Dog hot on her heels.

“Nat, be on the watch for any angry politicians for a few days. But I don’t think we’ll have any problems. I have to go follow a lead and I may be gone a couple of days.”

 
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