Love Never Changes
Chapter 23

Copyright© 2020 by StarFleet Carl

“Why does my mouth taste like the puppies took a poop in it? And my head, it hurts!”

“You’re a lightweight, Curie. Two glasses and you were out like a light,” Piper said. “Here, drink this, it’ll help.”

“Oh, what is that pounding in my head? I do not like it!”

Gwen looked across the counter, where she was eating her breakfast, at where Curie was still sitting on the couch, where we’d left her last night. “Piper’s right, sweetie. Drink that and it’ll help. Then get over here and get some food in you.”

I came out of the bathroom, where I’d been brushing my teeth. “Sink is ready for you, Curie. Go brush your teeth before we give you kisses. You snored worse than Piper ever has since I’ve known her.”

Nat was also at the counter, giggling. “I’ve heard Piper snore worse than that, but it’s been a while. She’s been awfully quiet since she met you.” Nat’s face got red. “Except when she squeaks.”

Piper whirled around. “Natalie!” Her face got incredibly red.

Nat and Gwen both giggled, then. “Don’t look at me. Aunt Gwen told me to say that to you.”

Shaun came out of his bedroom, rubbing his eyes, looking tired. “You doing okay?”, I asked him. “You’re normally up before this.”

“Yeah, Mom, I’ll be okay. I’d fall asleep and then get woke up when Diohgi would kick me because he heard Mom Curie. He thought she was in trouble, so I’d have to get up and let him come check on her. He’d see that she was okay, then come back in. Half hour later the same thing would happen again.”

“Well, if that’s the only bad thing that happened last night, then we’ll count the party a success. If you want to, go lay back down.”

“That’s okay, Mom. It was fun seeing everyone have a good time.” He yawned. “But if you don’t mind, I will, for another hour or so.” He turned around and went back to bed.

“Don’t worry, Aunt Tina. I won’t let him oversleep and miss lunch,” Nat promised.

“Sounds good. Let’s finish up breakfast, I have a few more places to check out today.”

A bit later we were in the briefing room. “Good morning, Haylen, Rhys. What’s left on the list of spots that were listed as strange or bypassed?”

“Just two, plus an odd radio broadcast. There’s what looks like a whole store area that’s run by robots, and there’s also a sealed bunker. Here’s where they are, on the map.”

“Oh. Shit, I remember Nate talking about that place. I think ... yes. Let me go check something back in my house, and we’ll be ready to head out. Go ahead and tell Katie to get the bird ready. Did Theil and her crew get back to the Prydwen?”

Rhys laughed. “We poured them into the bird this morning. Their ability to ignore rads didn’t extend to whiskey. They’ll be fine ... eventually.”

I looked at the rest of the group. “You all go ahead, I’ll be right back.” Puzzled, they did so. I ran back to the house. “Codsworth, where’s that footlocker we dug up?”

“Here in the closet, mum. I stored it just in case you might need it for something.”

“I do. Let me get this open. And pull this strap out.” Pulling the strap took the liner down from inside the lid. Under the liner, hanging loose now because the adhesive had failed, were several pieces of plastic and some documents in a plastic bag. “Here it is.” I put everything else loose in the bottom of the case, then put it back. “Thanks. We should be back in time for dinner today, I hope.”

“Very good, mum!”

I hurried down to where the bird was waiting. Once I was onboard, Katie took off for the first location. It was only a few minutes away. “Katie, make sure you’re far enough away that the robots don’t get stirred up, okay?” She nodded.

“What the hell is this place, ma’am? That looks like a giant Mister Handy,” James said.

“General Atomics Galleria. They had planned to have an entire series of stores, all run by robots. Bunch of different stores. If they’ve been active since the war, there’s no way of telling how their programming has held up.”

Her face puzzled, Curie said, “Why would they not be self aware, like we were?”

“You had special programming from RobCo, sweetie. So did Codsworth. If these just had the standard General Atomics programming, it could be ugly.”

We got out of the bird and started walking towards the entrance. Loudspeakers around the complex shouted out commands from a supervisor robot. “Be on the lookout for thieves, trespassers, and Communists! All Employees! Report suspicious behavior immediately. Remember, YOU are the pride of General Atomics.”

“Shit, this is worse than I thought. Hold up, here.” I looked around. From where I was standing, I could see a boxing gym, a department store, a bakery, a General Atomics Outlet store, a Fallon’s Department Store, and a Slocum’s Joe. “Deacon, no, uh, secret tunnels under the coffee shop, right?”

“Not that I know of, boss.”

“Good. This is going to be annoying enough as it is.” Damn. “The rest of you, stay put right here. I MIGHT be able to handle this one by myself, but ONLY by myself.”

It was a sign of how much he’d changed that James simply said, “We’ll be here to help with more firepower if you need us.”

I started walking towards the giant Mister Handy. Several robots took notice of me, but none of them headed towards me. Instead, they seemed to move to their various places of business. From the loudspeakers, I heard, “Remember! The use of force against customers is strictly prohibited. Any deviation from standard operating procedure must be authorized by the Director! The Director has sanctioned the use of lethal force against looters.”

There was a narrow entrance at the base of the giant robot. A small elevator was just inside. I stepped in, pushed the button. The elevator hummed and carried me up into a large control room. A variety of computer consoles were spread about, with monitors and windows on the walls. A Mister Gutsy was hovering in front of the consoles.

“Hold it right there. I’ve been monitoring your approach. Very impressive ... for a lowlife criminal. Just what are you up to? Who are you working for? I want answers!”

I pulled the piece of plastic I’d retrieved from the footlocker. “Are you the temporary Director here?” I put the ID badge and clipped it on my armor. “If so, I’m reporting in.”

“Reporting in?” He went from angry to puzzled. “Wait. The Grand Reopening. Are you Grand Reopening Supervisor 18-Alpha? You’re late.”

“Scan my ID. You’ll find that I’m a bit further up the General Atomics corporate ladder than a simple Supervisor.”

He looked at it. “Colonel Wilson! Director of Marketing, for the Mister Gutsy line! It is an honor to meet you! I apologize, but the Galleria has been closed while we were waiting for the official word to reopen.”

“Authorization Wilson, Nathan. GA dash 203 dash O6. You may reopen the Galleria.”

“Scanning. Authorization confirmed. ID confirmed. Accessing protocols.” He moved a switch, activating the loudspeakers again. “All right, listen up. The Grand Reopening Protocol will distribute software upgrades to all employees and reopen the Galleria. All units! Stand by for the Grand Reopening.” He hit several buttons on the consoles. “Processing firmware updates ... done! Designating new Facility Supervisor ... done! Reinstating combat inhibitors ... done! The General Atomics Galleria is now open for business. Thank you, Colonel Wilson. I’ll have the prize for tonight’s customer appreciation drawing waiting for you.”

I let out a sigh of relief. “Carry on.” I stepped back into the elevator.

From the loudspeakers as the elevator went back down, I heard, “All right, maggots, listen up! I want your stores cleaned yesterday! Move it, move it!” His voice changed to a regular one. “The Galleria is open for business 24-7! Many of our products are currently out of stock. We regret the inconvenience.”

I left the tower, walking back to where everyone was waiting. The robots were busy picking up trash, sweeping their buildings out, washing windows, and doing general cleaning at a frenzied pace. I laughed a little at them. I also forgot I’d clipped that badge on my armor.

“Colonel Wilson? Marketing Director? That picture doesn’t do you justice, love,” Gwen said.

“Oh, sorry.” I took it off and put it away. At her look, I explained, “I ... we ... Nate and I buried a trunk in the backyard, about a month before Shaun was born. That’s where my rifle, my pistol, lots of ammo, a bunch of supplies, was hidden. There was stuff there that wasn’t legal for civilians to possess. We also put copies of our corporate ID badges and some other papers in there, too. Nate was the recognized hero from Anchorage, so he was hired to promote the Mister Gutsy line.”

Curie shook her head. “Poor boys. None of them are more than just simple servants, are they? Even after all this time.”

“Afraid not, love. But the net result is that this place is now safe to visit. So let’s go see what else we have to deal with.”

A scavenger was walking around the Galleria. The robots were talking to him about buying things as we got back on the bird. Katie took off and we headed north. It was a short hop. There was a bunker in a small valley, just south of where things became wasteland. Katie landed on top of one of the hills of that valley, making it an easy walk down to the bunker.

The door was obviously locked, but there was a terminal outside. The others just stood guard while I walked up to the terminal. “Is it that obvious?”

“Yes!” “Oui!” “Yep!”

“Fine.” I had a smile on my face when I said that, though. I hummed a little as I started typing on this one. Live terminal, password encrypted, special code needed to unlock the door ... and here’s the backdoor so I can change that special code to something easy, and ... done. The door clicked, opening up. I looked inside.

There was a man inside, silver hair and wild beard, wearing Brotherhood combat armor. He was holding a laser rifle. He sounded scared, but determined. “Freeze! One more step and I’ll ... I’ll blow your damn head off!”

I moved my arm, so he could see the Brotherhood insignia and rank badge on it. “Take it easy, I’m with the Brotherhood. Who are you?”

“I’m ... Brandis. Paladin Brandis. Who ... what are you doing here? Who sent you? How’d you get in here?”

“Piper, get Katie down here. It’s okay, Paladin. Elder Maxson authorized more missions here in the Commonwealth. We’re here to help.”

He sounded confused. “How did you find me? I’ve ... I’ve been alone. All alone. For so long...”

Katie came up. “Paladin Brandis! I remember you. I’m Bennett, from the Prydwen.”

He looked at her. “Bennett? No ... no, no, no, that can’t be. Why are you here?”

She said, “We’re here for you, Paladin. To help, to bring you back home.”

“My team ... we were on a recon mission. But the Brotherhood is far away. Too far ... too far to help us.”

“Paladin Brandis! Attention!” He snapped to automatically at the command. “Paladin, I am Sentinel Wilson, Brotherhood of Steel. You will shoulder your arms and follow Lancer-Sergeant Bennett up to the vertibird, where we WILL transport you to the Prydwen and you WILL brief Elder Maxson on your mission. Now, move out!” What I had hoped for, the ingrained military discipline, made him start to follow the commands.

He at least made it part way up the hill before he started to break down again. “My ... my team! It’s been ... so long.”

Katie turned to him. “Come on, Brandis. It’s time to go home.” Her voice was very soft. I could see the tears in her eyes at his condition. That worked. He scrambled the rest of the way up the hill, let us help him load into the bird, his head down. I saw Katie wipe her eyes before she put her helmet on and fired up the bird. I didn’t have to ask, she handed back a headset for me.

“Prydwen, this is Sentinel Wilson. Inboard your location with a medical emergency. Please make sure we have a landing spot available.”

“Sentinel, this is Captain Kells. Copy that. What is the nature of the emergency, so we can have appropriate personnel standing by?”

“Tell Elder Maxson and Knight-Captain Cade, we found the last survivor of Recon Team Artemis. Paladin Brandis. He’s physically uninjured, but...”

Kells sounded surprised. “Brandis? Yes, at once. I understand, Sentinel! We’ll have an appropriate team waiting for him.”

It seemed like Katie was in a bit of a hurry. She didn’t quite match the speed when we were heading to Bunker Hill, but close. I also doubt very much that her approach and docking method was the approved one. Pilots tended to stop in hover mode, just below the Prydwen, then raise up and let the docking clamp lower down to them. She just sort of did a little dive, then slid up, cutting her engine power just as our bird went up and into the docking clamp.

There were four people from the Prydwen waiting at the end of the loading ramp. I had everyone else on my team wait while I helped Brandis down. He didn’t even notice when I slipped his rifle off and handed it to James. He just looked a bit like a lost child as I led him to the main gangway.

As his lead foot hit the gangway, as one the four waiting for him said, “Ad Victoriam!” and saluted, right hand to their breasts. That brought his head up. He released my hand and brought his hand up in return. His eyes opened wide when he recognized Arthur.

“Elder Maxson, sir...”

“Welcome home, Paladin, welcome home. Please, Knight-Captain Cade and his aide will help you get cleaned up, get a clean uniform. I’d like to hear what happened with Team Artemis when you’re ready.”

He still sounded a little shaky, but not like before. I could tell he realized he might be safe again. “Yes, Elder. Thank you, sir.” He turned to me. “You ... you really are a Sentinel, aren’t you? I wondered, you know. If I’d finally lost it. I thought you were an angel, come to take me away. You were, but not ... not...” He couldn’t talk any more. Cade and his aide took him by the arms, led him inside.

I wasn’t the only one who had tears in my eyes at his words. When I finally got mine done, I asked, “So, do we know what happened to the rest of his team?”

Arthur’s voice was a bit rough from emotion, too. “Yes. We ... our combined forces ... found where they’d been ambushed, all their power armor blown. They found the remains of one of his Knights inside the old National Guard facility, some of the gear from a scribe in the Revere Satellite Array, but no body. Probably eaten by the super mutants there. There’d been something on one of the records we found about a fallback location they’d found, but ... we didn’t know where it was.”

He looked at me. “Thank you for bringing him home, Tina. We’ll take care of him. And due to the circumstances ... Kells will overlook the obvious landing procedure violation by your pilot.”

“Thank you, Arthur, Kells. That’s been enough for me for one day, I think.”

He nodded in agreement. I went back to the bird, let them help me load up. “Katie, if you can manage to do so without incurring the wrath of Kells, take us home, please.”

“Uh, yes, ma’am. Ma’am, how pissed was he?”

“I really wouldn’t do that landing again if you can keep from it. You’ll note that I’m not telling you that you CAN’T do it again, just...”

I could hear the smile in her voice. “Understood, ma’am. Oh, and tell everyone to hold on, we’re going to have a combat drop launch.”

“If they puke, you get to clean it up.”

She laughed. “Yeah, but it’ll be worth it. This is when we’re alive, isn’t it?” With that, she hit the release and we went into a free-fall. The engines started and the wings tilted forward before we were halfway to the ocean below, and she brought us out of the dive barely skimming the top of the water.

Curie and Deacon managed to get most of it out the door. I was proud of everyone else, they didn’t puke. I just gave a wild yell of approval, I hadn’t had a good drop like that since going on the Minecart coaster at Nuka-World. Once we leveled off, Gwen looked at me with wide eyes.

“Do you have extra canisters for the Vault suits at Sanctuary?”

I leaned over and gave her a kiss. “Yep. You can get a bath, too. Damn, that was fun!”

James and Piper just glared at me, while Deacon and Curie groaned.

Once we were back, I put Katie on clean-up detail. Gwen went to clean her Vault suit, Curie and Deacon both went to find someplace to lay down. Piper went to check out what the kids were up to; James stayed with me. I headed to where I’d put the power armor I’d brought back to Sanctuary.

“Sturges, did you get things figured out?”

“Sure thing! This was just like when I was with the Atom Cats, bringing a set of power armor up to full capabilities. You got a sensor array, bright headlight, calibrated shocks, optimized bracers, and reactive plates. But ... pink paint? That’s not exactly...” He saw the look on my face. “Yes, ma’am, you’re the boss. She’s pink. But, WHY?”

“My unique armor, mostly. You did get the radio installed as well, right?”

“Of course. That was easy.”

“Is it ready to try out, then?”

“Sure. You want to make sure everything works, right? Do a quick walk around the area, so we don’t have any glitches?”

“Sort of.” I opened it up and got in. He’d done a fantastic job on it. I walked around, then headed back down to where the bird was parked. James was still tagging along. “Katie, I just want to do a quick test of my armor. Do you have the location for the Warwick Homestead on your map?”

“Yes, ma’am. Just across the bay from the Castle.”

“That’s where we’re going. Head ‘em up, move ‘em out.”

“Beg pardon, ma’am?”

“Take off and take us there.” I shook my head as the bird took off.

James leaned over to me. “What do you hope to accomplish there? Do you even ... oh, you do, don’t you?”

“One biometric scanner, already attached to the armor. I’m just wondering, though, what everyone there has heard, since there’s obviously been traders visit since the changes. I’m actually giving thought to something different.”

Over the radio, I heard, “Tina, this is Piper. What do you think you’re doing?”

“Just a quick test of my power armor, dear. A trip to Warwick Homestead and back. You’ll actually thank me for leaving you behind. It’s a reclaimed sewage treatment plant. So, if you remember what that landfill smelled like, this will probably be worse.”

It didn’t take her long to make her mind up. “If the odor seeps into your clothes, I’m going to burn them. Have fun.” She clicked off.

“Sewage treatment plant?” James shook his head. “Is this actually part of my duties?”

“Why do you think I waited until I had power armor with air filters again?” I laughed at both his and Katie’s expressions. A few minutes later, we flew over a Red Rocket station that had a bunch of power armor on display, then came in for a landing in front of a large building at the Warwick Homestead.

The whole place was on a large spit of land jutting out into the bay. There were the standard round sewage filtration tanks close to the bay, and a large, multi-story building that had smoke stacks coming from it that probably held the pumps and power supplies when the place was running. There were a large number of crops visible, showing that the soil here was rather fertile. I could see three men, a woman, and two younger people, a boy about Shaun’s age, and a girl about the age of Lucy Abernathy. One of the men and the woman stopped working when James and I stepped down from the bird and cautiously approached us.

“Howdy, folks. We’ve been seeing those machines fly over a lot, and the traders have said things in the Commonwealth have changed a lot. Um, can we help you?”

I took my helmet off, only gagging a little at the smell. “Good afternoon. I’m General Wilson, Commonwealth Minutemen. This is James, my assistant. And you are... ?”

“Oh, it’s definitely good to hear the Minutemen are back. Sorry, I’m Roger Warwick, this is my wife, June. Those kids listening in are Janey and Wally. And back there is our foreman, Bill Sutton and Cedric Hopton, our farmhand. So, is there something we can help you all with?”

“We’re going around to all the settlements that we haven’t had the troops get to yet, to see if there are things you need, stuff we can help with. We’re setting up supply lines to all of them, as well as providing terminals if you have one of the old workstations so that materials can be recycled. In general, doing what we can to get the rebuilding of the Commonwealth going. Is there anything you need help with?”

June looked excited. “Wow, that’s just ... almost unbelievable. I know I’d seen a bunch more things with the last two traders that came in. We even got some tarberry jelly this last run, and it was cheap. As for help, sure. You got something that’ll help my husband sleep better? He’s been restless these last several months, we had some hard times and it’s been hitting him pretty hard. But he’s been a changed man, too. More caring with the kids and with me, I want him to be okay.”

“Now, June, that’s not something to worry these folks over. I’m just trying to make sure we don’t have any more hard times again.”

“I’m not going to say that there may not be bad things happen, but you get a wall with some defenses set up, as well as something in case a mirelurk or two comes out of the water, and you’ll be defended pretty well here. We’ll have some people come down to help with that. I don’t think there’ll be any problems with blood bugs chasing them halfway across the Commonwealth.” I saw Roger’s eyes widen when he heard that code phrase.

“Can ... can I give you a tour of our facility here?”, he asked.

“No, that’s no necessary. Neither is why you originally came here,” I stated.

“Excuse me?”, he said, a puzzled look on his face.

“Mrs. Warwick, you did say your husband was a bit of a changed man.”

She frowned. “Well, yeah. He’s quit drinking, he treats the kids right, he’s treating me right, and he’s even quit being so friendly with Bill Sutton, which is a good thing since Bill’s wife and kids left him.”

“Just a second, Mrs. Warwick. Scribe Haylen, this is Sentinel Wilson, do you copy?”

“Go ahead, Sentinel.”

“That boathouse, where the bugs had killed everyone not that long ago. Did we have a name for the people there?”

“One moment, ma’am.” I could hear her looking at her notes. “That was a Mary Sutton and her children, Margaret and Russell. Something about leaving a husband that was a drunk and chem addict.”

“Thank you, Haylen. Wilson, out.” I clicked my radio off. “Why did Mr. Sutton’s wife and children leave him?”

“Bill has a temper. And he drinks a lot. That’s why I’m so happy that Roger stopped hanging around with him, quit drinking. He’s like a new man.”

Roger was looking at me with a frightened look on his face. “Mrs. Warwick, June, let me ask you a serious question. Do you like your husband as he is now, or would you prefer that he be like he was several months ago?”

“Definitely like he is now. Why, what could make him like he was?”

“Simple. Unrelated, have you heard about all the changes that have happened with and to the Institute? How it’s been changed recently?”

“Oh, one of the traders said that there’d been some changes, that we didn’t have to worry about synths and such any more, but I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“Ah, it’s very simple. There was a change in management at the Institute. So while there are still some people here in the Commonwealth that were replaced, the missions that they were on have all been canceled. And while the original person that was taken is no longer available ... meaning they’re dead ... the created person that was put in their place could potentially have all of the original personality restored to them, so you’d never know the difference. From a physical perspective, of course, the created person is exactly like the person replaced.”

Roger just closed his eyes, shaking his head. “June...”, he said softly.

“I wondered about it. I think so have the kids. We like Roger now.” Her words were rather firm.

One of the men had been bringing some things closer to where we were standing, and heard part of our conversation. “Hey! You’re saying that Roger here is a synth? Damn, I knew IT! You fucking synth, I’m going to kill YOU!” He started to reach for a gun.

“Sutton! Freeze or you’re a dead man!” He looked at me with wild eyes.

“What? You just said he’s a filthy synth!”

“No, I said he might be a created person. And even if he was, created people have the same rights as every person in the Commonwealth. The same rights that your wife, daughter, and son had, before you ran them off with your drinking and chem use. I believe that their names were Mary, Margaret, and Russell, weren’t they? Of course, we had to guess a little, because the creatures didn’t leave that much of their bodies. They ran to escape you. It might have been kinder if you’d just put a bullet in their brains yourself.”

Sutton looked at me. “They’re ... they’re dead? That can’t be. I ... I was a little rough, I know. I shouldn’t have hit Margaret like that. But she made me mad, said I sold the brahmin for chems. Mary took them. No, they can’t be dead. You’re lying! You can’t know what they’re doing! You’re just a bitch, a lying cunt!” His hand moved down.

Mine cleared the holster and fired before he even got his off his hip.

Cedric came running up, the kids right behind him. Cedric said, “What happened? I saw Bill reach, did his temper finally get the better of him?”

“I think that’s the most ... appropriate ... explanation. I’m sorry, kids, um...”

Janey just looked down, then spit on Bill’s body. “Good. Dad, I’m sorry, but he was a bad man. I know he’d been your friend from before, but you’ve changed, become a good man. He never did. He nearly blinded Margaret, that’s why they left.”

Roger looked at Cedric. “Um, Cedric, can you...”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Warwick. He can become recycling. Maybe that way he’ll be doing something useful around here. Come on, kids, give me a hand with him.”

June nodded. “Like I said, I like my husband now. So do the kids.”

He looked at her. “Are ... are you sure? Um ... I know I was supposed to...”

“Shush. It doesn’t matter what you were supposed to do. You’re more of a man now than ever. Maybe you can spend some of that night time activity with me, even.” Her eyes gleamed a little at that.

“Apropos of nothing in particular, without Supplement 41 in your food, any created person is fully fertile. Male or female. And unless you have any other questions for me, I think we’ll just head out.”

Roger looked at June, then at me. “But ... thank you. I...” He was tongue tied.

“Don’t worry about it, Roger. Oh, and if you all ever need to contact me, I have a few titles. General of the Minutemen, Governor of the Commonwealth, and, oh yeah, since the Institute is now the Commonwealth Institute of Technology, I’m Director of that as well. You all have a good time, you hear?”

June took Roger’s hand. “Thank you, we will. I ... I guess I have one question. Are ... are you a...”

“Created person? No. James here is, though. So is one of my wives. Katie, my pilot? She’s Brotherhood of Steel, and isn’t, either.” I shrugged, which looked odd in power armor. “Makes no difference out here any longer.”

“Okay. Hey, could you check with some friends of ours? They live just on the other side of the bay. They’ve helped us in the past, we’ve helped them, too. They’re called the Atom Cats. I think they’d like your armor.”

“I’ll do that, June. Roger, June, you all have a good day, and look for a supply robot to show up sometime in the next week or so.”

James and I headed back to the bird. He saw me shaking my head. “What’s wrong, ma’am? Other than the issue with Sutton, things worked out well, I think.”

“It’s not that. It’s how badly my first idea, of simply restoring all the personality of the original Roger Warwick, would have been for these people. I’m glad now that I wasn’t able to do that.” We loaded up. “Short hop, Katie, over to that Red Rocket.”

We took to the air. We were about halfway across the bay when Katie called out, “It looks like gunfire ahead!” James got up and grabbed the mini-gun handles. As we got a little closer, Katie said, “Looks like a few people in power armor suits defending, and a large group of Gunners attacking!”

“Take us in from the side, so James can hit the Gunners in the flank with the mini-gun!”

She banked the bird out, then back in again. He opened fire on a group of Gunners that were in the back, moving up. I put my helmet back on. “Just to the left, level it off for a second.” She did. I heard James curse as he realized what I was doing. A quick jump from 40 feet up and I was headed down, right into the middle of a group of Gunners.

One of them looked up and started to scream. My boot landing on his head cut off his scream, as well as his head. The impact of my armor knocked the rest of them down or otherwise stunned them for a couple of seconds. That was all I needed. Fire, pivot, fire, pivot, fire. That took care of the immediate threat. I saw two Gunners trying to use an old billboard as cover. Katie brought the bird around so that James had a perfect shot at them with the mini-gun, which took care of those two. The rest of the firing ended as the last Gunner turned and was cut down by one of the Atom Cats.

Katie brought the bird in for a landing on the beach. James jumped out, running over to me. “I presume you’re okay; otherwise I’ll be very upset with you.”

“Yeah, but I need to see if these folks have a hose.” I raised up my left leg. There was brain matter squished into the soles of my boot. He just shook his head, then followed me over to the garage.

One of them, wearing a black leather jacket and sunglasses, said, “Ugh. Gunners. Those wet rags keep trying to get their mitts on our suits. But you, Jack. You slayed!”

“Yeah, I did. I need a hose, though, to clean one of them out of my armor.”

He laughed. “You are outta sight, and a friend of the Cats in my book. You have full rein of our digs. Check out the chassis on you. Your plates have got me cranked. The name’s Zeke.”

I shook my head, saying, “Figures,” under my breath. I took my helmet off. “Zeke, pleased to meet you. You the big cheese of this mousetrap?”

He nodded. “What’s your tale, nightingale? You want a ticket to fat city?”

“Got one. My ride’s vertical. June Warwick told me to check on you, make sure you were doing okay, and to make sure you all knew the latest about what’s going on in the Commonwealth.”

“Cool, Daddy-O. June and her folks did the Atom Cats a solid, so we look out for them. You doing the same?”

“Yeah. There was an issue with Bill Sutton, so he’s pushing up daisies now, but all their issues are resolved.”

“Whoa! I knew that Billy boy was doing some heavy riding, but we didn’t know he was totally uncool. That’s totally square.”

“I dig. Hey, I’m going to lay something heavy on you, you might want to get your clan, Stan, so they can all hear it at the same time.”

He hollered out, “Atom Cats! Bring your paws here and gather for some milk!” They quit what they were doing, which was gathering things from the dead Gunners, and came up to where we were standing. “Jack here says she’s got something heavy for us.”

“Listen up, Atom Cats. I’m sure you’ve had some traders come around, talk about the new things happening in the Commonwealth. I thought you’d like the straight dope, so I’m here to cut through all the scatter and give you the skinny. The good news is that the Minutemen are working together with the Brotherhood of Steel to restore law and order to the Commonwealth. The better news is that the Institute is now also on their side, in helping. The bad news is ... well, I just happen to be the one that’s the Governor of the whole damned Commonwealth.”

One of the women looked at Zeke. “Yeah, I’ve heard something about that. Um ... in all seriousness, how’s that going to affect us? I’m Rowdy, by the way.”

“If I can quit talking like I’m in an old film, I’ll let you know. Do you have one of those old prewar workstations here?”

She shook her head. “I know there’s one at Warwick, but we can’t make them work.”

“They’ll be able to do so, soon. And with the appropriate materials, they can salvage things. So you’ll be able to chunk up those old cars, feed them into the workstation, and get usable steel out of it. Make defenses, other things. I know this is your territory, but the whole Commonwealth is under MY jurisdiction. And I’d much rather we all live and work together in peace, because I really DO have an army to back me up. We’ve already cleared everything north of the Charles, they’re working on everything south of the Charles now.”

Zeke frowned. “So where’s that leave us?”

“You’re fine, you’ve been helping people that needed it. Just keep doing that. I don’t know if you want to sort of move a little closer, or figure out how to make it easier to work with the Warwick family, but we’re working on rebuilding the Commonwealth, get rid of the Raiders, the super mutants, feral ghouls. And doing a damned good job of it. So you working to help them is exactly what I’ve been wanting people to do, on their own. Thank you for being helpful.”

Rowdy looked over at Zeke. He nodded. “We fix up power armor, got lots of mods that can be made to them. Looking at your suit, you’ve already got a wizard, but we’ll help so long as we can get paid right.”

“Yeah, I think he knows you folks. Sturges, used to live in Quincy, before things went totally to hell for the Minutemen.”

Zeke nodded. “Glad to hear he’s still alive. He could do wonders with the plates. Hey, you say you’re doing a lot with all the bad boys, what about these wet rags? They used to just be the occasional pest that we’d zap, wipe off our windscreen and keep on tooling down the road. Now, they’re a whole cloud of bugs.”

“I thought they were just mercenaries. I wonder what their problem is?”

Rowdy said, “Their digs are over west of here. That big building with the tower on top of it. Thing is a fortress.”

I frowned. “The Galaxy News Network building? I had to go in there one time for an interview. This could be bad. Thanks. You all take care here now, okay?”

“Don’t suppose you could maybe do us a favor? I’ve a pump part for June that needs to be installed over there,” Rowdy said.

I shook my head. “That’s okay. I’m barely able to start smelling again after how bad it stinks over there.”

She smiled. “Can’t blame a girl for trying. That’s why I’ve been putting it off.”

We got back into the bird. “I heard. No, I will NOT let you jump out of my bird and land on top of that building, but we can do some recon from a safe distance.”

“Katie, has my behavior at any time given you a thought that I might have you do crazy things like that? Wait, don’t answer that...” She and James both laughed at me.

“There it is, ma’am. I’ll circle it from a safe distance.” She had us about 400 yards away, 500 feet up. “Damn, they’re really serious about this place, aren’t they?” There was a huge Gunners emblem painted on the side of the building.

“Ma’am, is that a super mutant, there in that train?”

“Yes. And it looks like he’s going to try something. There he goes, running for the back side of the building. Ah, see, there’s a brahmin down there. Look, they’ve got observers on the roof, and they see him.”

I felt Katie suddenly increase our power and change directions. “Hang on back there. It’s going to get rough in a minute!” She was heading flat out, away from where we’d been. I felt the bird shake, spinning us a little to one side. That let me see that where the super mutant had been was now a small crater, with a little mushroom cloud rising.

“Fuck! Fat man launchers? Okay, that’s REALLY not something I want them to have.” I clicked my radio on. “Prydwen, this is Sentinel Wilson. Is Elder Maxson available?”

It only took a moment. “This is Maxson, go ahead.”

“How many total vertibirds would be available for a serious bit of shock and awe, say, tomorrow? I’ll also need a lot of troops in power armor, too.”

“Not counting yours, we have fourteen birds that could be available tomorrow. What’s the issue?”

“I’d like to solve something peacefully if I can. Do you know of the Gunners building, here in the south central portion?”

“Affirmative. So far, it’s been a case of they’re leaving us alone, so we’re leaving them alone. What’s changed?”

“You know that special cargo that I let you deal with? They have some, enough that they’re willing to use one just to take out a single super mutant.”

The radio was silent for a very long moment. “Plan on doing something the day AFTER tomorrow, if you would, please. We have several birds down for maintenance right now and we’ll expedite everything.”

“One question, I thought you had a limited supply of them here?”

“We did. There’s a workstation at the airport. We’ve been making them, so you’ll have more to use here.”

“That’ll work. Thank you.” I looked at Katie. “Take us to the Castle, I want to talk to Preston.”

She headed that way. The birds that had been escorting the troops were there, with the courtyard filled with tents. There was a spot for us to land, so she put us down.

I headed into the courtyard. “Ronnie, Preston, good to see you. How are things going here now?”

“Um, fine? You were just here a couple of days ago. What’s going on?”, Ronnie asked.

“What’s the maximum accurate range of your field artillery?”

“We fire round shot. We don’t have the capabilities to make regular artillery, like the military used to have. So even at a mile, we tended to hit within about a 200 yard circle. Two miles was the maximum range the guns had, even with the wind, Why?”

“That’s fine, Ronnie. I wish I had that table here, that Haylen made.”

“General, she gave us a map, on a big piece of paper that I have. I’ve got it on a table in the corner room, we were just going to use it to figure out where to go next,” Preston said.

“Good. Let’s go. How are your forces doing, where are your casualties?”

“In the last ... week? Yeah, we’ve had a total of three killed, twelve wounded. A super mutant suicider managed to get close with a mini-nuke. All the wounded were taken to the Prydwen for treatment, and half of them are back already. We could use a day to stand down and re-arm, then we’ll be ready to go again.”

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