She’s shaking her head in awe, simultaneously clicking her tongue in disapproval and examining my leg for an entry point, and I can only let her, frozen in place as she inspects my broken bones.
I look around. Nick is out in the hall and around the corner, away from my line of sight. I’m afraid of losing him. We’re in the middle of another vault, one like the one I emerged out of, but oh so different. It’s maze-like and claustrophobic, and of course the dog is nowhere to be found.
“This seems like a good place to start,” she says, turning to grab a surgical knife. She cuts a deep seam down my leg from my knee to the base of my foot without an ounce of restraint, and I groan. It doesn’t hurt. It never does, but she’s still digging inside my body. I also know what a bloody mess is, even if my own blood is frozen solid in time.
I tell myself to look away but I can’t, mesmerized as I watch her pull the flesh open and dig her fingers inside.
“What did you find?” she asks as she’s searching for fragments of bone, the morbid curiosity palpable in her voice. I bite, both relieved and grateful that she wants to know, that I at least have someone to tell.
What did I find? I think. “Me,” I tell her, before I begin to explain.
I lost 200 years in the blink of an eye, and yet the past few weeks of my life feels life-times longer. My family – myself, my newborn son and my wife – were frozen in cryogenic sleep inside a vault deep underground, tricked as the bombs dropped and manipulated by a corporation that no longer exists. Two centuries gone like seconds sitting frozen in a metal tube.
Somehow, I woke just in time to witness my wife’s murder. I watched helplessly as my son was kidnapped, and just as the memory of his kidnapper’s face burned itself into my brain, I fell asleep again.
I don’t know how much time passed, but I woke up again in that metal tube, only this time I could move. I could walk again. And I discovered to my horror that I was the only one left alive.
I stepped out of that vault with only one objective: to find my son. I understood that the world would be a different place now, but I was not prepared for what I found. The world wasn’t just different, it was destroyed. What was left had mutated over time or changed completely for the worst. My entire reality was gone, now reduced to rubble. But I had no time to mourn what I’d lost.
The drive to find Shawn kept me moving. If this new world horrified me, I could only imagine what it seemed like to him.
Once I found what was left of my home, I stepped out of the neighborhood and found a stray dog. It was as if he’d been waiting for me all along, and even then it felt like he knew something I never will. It was, not exactly meant to be, but like it was written, and he’s been with me ever since.
I went into town to find supplies and instead found a group of people in need of help. I saved the day, found some power armor and fought a Deathclaw, making it back home in time for the armor to die down.
Everything seemed like it was falling into place. I started to rebuild, leading the Minutemen, exploring, but not for one second did I forget about my son. Finding him was becoming much harder than I could have imagined.
Someone gave me a tip to go to Diamond City, but every time I tried I was met with trouble. For a long time- no matter what I tried- I didn’t get very far and I’d have to turn around. And then something happened. Something that seemed so natural at the time, but when I stopped to think about it I realized that it didn’t make sense.
I realized that I was losing small chunks of time. Sometimes I’d come across trouble and a moment later I’d find myself yards away, with the clock turned back. Sometimes I’d find myself reliving a few moments earlier, like déjà vu. And then I started to pay attention.
I realized, to my amazement, that I’d died. But I didn’t just die, I re-spawned to a moment or minutes before my death as if it had never happened. I realized that, in a sense, I was immortal.
Time continued to pass. I got stronger. The more I fought, the more I helped others, the better I got, and with the snap of a finger came new abilities. They came at unpredictable times. My luck increased. I grew stronger. My aim was steadier. I realized that I was a better hunter at night, and irradiated food didn’t bother me as much.
I started to notice more. Rocks that floated a few feet off the ground. Brahmin and people stuck in walls, unaware of their predicament. Moments where everything else seemed to stop and only I could notice. Even the settlers were starting to act oddly, sometimes repeating themselves or ignoring me all together. Even when something happens they seem to be in a trance, following a script I’m starting to memorize.
It’s odd, but it’s also somewhat liberating. Like I’m seeing hints of a secret that no one else is aware of. Like there’s something there, between the lines; If I focus, if I pay attention, there’s an entire reality waiting to be discovered, and I’m the only one who can see it.
Or at least I was, until she came to me. She, the girl who won’t give me her name.
“There are times when everything just disappears,” I tell her. “Not like the times when you are here when everything stops, or even when I die. It can happen at any time. I’m there, I stop, and then everything goes to black and stops existing.”
I give her a moment to interject, but she doesn’t say anything. She’s closed my other leg and is moving up to my pelvis, replacing bone with nearly indestructible metal.
“I forced myself to stay alert the next time it happened. The lights disappeared, but not all at once. It was like everything went flat for a split second, and the lights floated away all in one direction. So I followed.”
She opens up my chest and I immediately feel cold. I breathe in. It’s harder, but not impossible. From the corner of my eye I see brown fur. It’s the dog, I’m sure, prancing around just out of reach, unfettered.
“I followed the light and somehow I turned into light too, and I was me, but I was more, like I’d shed my body and became a celestial being made up of dots of light and other things. And I understood that I wasn’t just me. I was aware, but there were others there. Some of them just like me. Exact replicas. Same voice, even the same scars, and I realized that I am not as unique as I think I am.”
“I warned you not to explore,” she says in a low voice. Her tone is half-scolding, half-amazed, and for a split-second I see introspection in her eyes. She’s working on my arms now, and even though we’re almost face to face, she won’t look at me. “You’re not supposed to see any of this, let alone remember,” she continues.
“But you wouldn’t tell me why,” I say, the sadness palpable in my voice. “How many others are there? Am I a clone?” I ask, but she ignores the questions, instead swiping a deep gash down my left arm in one swoop, never breaking eye contact. I grind my teeth but ignore the distraction.
“How did a young girl like you get so powerful?” I ask instead. She tilts her head and opens her eyes impossibly wide.
“What makes you think that I am any of those things?” she asks in a low voice, and I stop. Her eyes are unusually wide, and her expression is blank in an odd way, like she’s trying to get me to catch on to a clue that I’m missing. And just like that, the moment is gone.
“Yes, there are others, some with your face, some not,” she replies answering my previous question, snapping me out of a trance. “But you’ll be happy to know you all make unique decisions in your own unique ways.” I watch her face, but her expression is back to neutral again, betraying no emotion. And then she tries to change the subject.
“You’re developing quite the Jet addiction,” she says in a professional tone with a note of finality.
“Buffjet, actually,” I reply. “My own recipe. How many others?” I ask, not letting it go.
“I don’t know,” she replies, and I want to believe that’s she’s telling me the truth. She scoffs and pulls away, thinking. “I lost count. Some of them are men. Some of them are women. One is a sweet old lady and another dresses up like Grognak right down to the axe. I don’t ask. I just do my job. I enhance, patch you up, and I leave.”
“Has this happened before?” I ask. She shakes her head.
“No,” she says decisively, in a low voice again.
“Would you tell me if it had?” I ask.
“No,” she says again.
“You ask that a lot.”
“And you never answer.”
“Because you have no idea what you’re playing at. Now shut up.”
She cuts my face open, placing my eyes on the tray. I watch as she removes my jaw and brain, and then my skull. She replaces that, too, with metal, and puts the squishy parts back in place.
“The others… they’re stuck in the same place. Confused. Some of them are used to doing the same thing over and over, forgetting they’ve already done it.” I take a moment to voice the question that’s been keeping me awake. Then: “Will that happen to me?”
She takes a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “Why would you want to know that, if you can’t change it?”
“Maybe I can make it better.”
“Or maybe you’ll corrupt everything.”
“You don’t know that, and neither do I. But I can at least try.”
She closes me up for the last time and takes a step back. My bones are scattered on the floor, but I am whole, somehow, with a skeleton that isn’t mine.
She looks at me one last time and shakes her head. “You’re going rogue, soldier,” she says in a low voice again, then turns to the door.
“Gary,” she says in a sing-song voice, and we wait. Two identical men appear with obedient looks on their faces. “Would you kindly pick these up, Gary,” she says in the same voice, and a shiver goes up my new spine.
“I am aware that I have no idea what I’m doing,” I continue as the Garys pick up my discarded bones. “But that light… I have never felt so connected to anything in my life. I want to know where it leads. I need to know what it means.”
She doesn’t say anything. I watch her as she continues to clean, lips pressed tightly closed. The conversation is over, I realize, and there’s not much I can do to get her to talk to me.
She starts to walk away. I watch as she moves, and then she stops right at the doorway. For a second I can almost see her deciding, and then she turns, her profile clearly visible, and I instinctively focus on her lips.
It happens so fast I almost miss it. In a flash she says two words and is gone, carried away by light, and the world around me is back to normal again. But I saw. I saw the words as they left her lips: