Yes, it’s been about 10 years since I last had kidney stones. Well, they’re back, and with a vengeance. I walked about a mile this morning before I had to stop, collapse on the cement for about ten minutes, and turn right back home. Little wonder they decided to “show up” now; I’ve walked about thirty miles in the last two weeks, so whatever stones I’ve got dancing around in there finally came loose. I’m like a freakin’ maraca, and I can’t even stand up without feeling like I want to die.
And yes, they’re on my left side, meaning they won’t be passing without surgical assistance.
Do I have a job yet? No. But if I manage to get one this week, I guess I know where my next two or three paychecks is going: straight to paying for another round of lithotripsy.
I don’t talk about my mission much. When I do, I usually only talk about it long enough to mention where I went, when I served, and how much it affected the person I have become. If you’re familiar with that person, then it’s probably safe to assume that you think I absolutely hated my mission and wish I’d never gone. I’ll admit, I have said those exact words before. Many times, actually. But I don’t think that simple statement helps illustrate how I really felt about my mission service. After all this time, after dealing with depression and bipolar disorder in all the wrong ways, I feel like I should revisit some of my memories, especially now that I’m slowly removing all of the “band-aids” that I shoved over the wounds attempting to ignore them instead of treat them properly.
I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Los Angeles Mission from 2007-2008, my time cut short due to a major bout of kidney stones that required surgery to remove (twice, actually, separated by a few years). To say that those 14 short months were “formative” to my present life would be like describing the excavation of a craver via a nuclear explosion as “repositioning some dirt”. I’ll explain why, and why I believe, ultimately, that it was a good thing I chose to serve.
On Top of the World One Minute…
I graduated from Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah in 2006. Right from senior year, I had a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young University, Idaho, and I was super excited to dive into life and learn as much as I could about everything. I did not yet show any symptoms of bipolar disorder, and only minor signs of depression stemming from the typical teen angst. During junior high and high school, I was the goody-good Mormon boy (at least I felt that way). I never had any really good friends in my family ward, but I had a group of close friends from school that expanded as time went on. I ended up pretty confident and optimistic, all things considered, especially going into the transition to college.
I was able to live with my grandparents while I attended BYU-I at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, which became a wonderful learning experience; my grandpa, Richard Bird, was previously a watercolor/oil painting teacher at the old Spori building on campus, and I was able to take advantage of learning from him when I took a few art classes.
It was during this time that two major health issues revealed themselves.
I intensely remember sitting down in the living room of my grandparents’ house one morning, turning on a marathon of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was showing on TBS, and being unable to rise off of the couch for the entire marathon. And it wasn’t because I felt any strong desire to watch them, either. For those of you who know me, sitting down, willingly, to watch a fifteen-hour marathon of anything on a channel that made a nine-hour, non-extended-edition experience that much longer because of commercials… I wouldn’t do that, especially not the week of midterms, not when there were things that needed to get done.
It was my first brush with what I called “depression” at the time, but now realize was my first manic/depressive downswing.
I also began feeling the first twinges of pain from my left kidney. There’s a story there, beyond the kidney stones. I was born two weeks early, which doesn’t seem like it should have been much of a problem. But, hey, I’m a problem child, and I came pre-packaged as one. Not only could I not breathe on my own right out of the gate, my left ureter (the tube that connects my kidney to my bladder) was formed incorrectly. Surgery was performed to fix the blockage when I was a few months old, and I’ve got the scar to prove that the doctor tried their best. Unfortunately, while my ureter is large enough to process water, the scar tissue on that dang little tube doesn’t allow kidney stones to pass on their own.
I did not realize this before my mission. Nor did the doctor who performed my physical and approved my physical ability to serve. This will become important later.
…Crashing the Next
It’s not too hard for me to point to why I feel like my mission was the worst thing evar. The difficulty arises in admitting that I don’t actually feel that way. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll lay it all out in the most awful way possible and then attempt to build up from the lowest point.
Growing up in Utah, it’s not difficult to see how I was able to feel confident enough to serve a mission. I was surrounded by friends, family, co-workers (for the most part), ward members, and even complete strangers that believed in exactly the same things that I believed in. When I made the decision to serve a mission, this was celebrated, and expected. So expected, that I was not aware I had a decision to the contrary. I had family that decided not to serve, certainly, and I didn’t hold that against them; I still don’t. I felt I had no reason not to serve. After all, in the LDS church, it is expected that every able-bodied and worthy young man should serve a mission. For all I knew, I was able-bodied. And I felt worthy.
So I did.
I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to go from a pure and understanding environment where you have been taught to value a single ideology with your whole being, to enter a place where no single person believes anything remotely similar to you. To go from a place where you are one of a comfortable majority to one in an intensely singular minority. But not just any minority. A minority that belongs to one of singular scorn and contempt. To most people on the street, you become something less than human. Less than a telemarketer calling during Thanksgiving dinner. Less than a teenager going door-to-door selling pest control, because at least they can easily explain the purpose for why they knocked on your door. Less than a Jehovah’s Witness, because at least they know what they believe. What was I? A scrawny white kid from a creepy cult who couldn’t speak much Spanish… and frankly, not much English either, at least not with any great charisma.
When I put on the badge, that black missionary tag with the name of the church and “Elder Bird” engraved on it, I became a target, for better or for worse. Combined with the white shirt and tie, a very visible target, one that made an excellent backboard for 64-ounce Big Gulp soda cups and drunk people who wanted to let off some steam. People go out of their way to cross the street to avoid talking to you. Those that do want to talk to you usually begin the interaction as a confrontation instead of a conversation. Sure, you get doors slammed in your face. But I began to prefer that. It hurt much less than talking to a very tired elderly mother with four mentally-handicapped adult children (all of whom she still cared for) that demanded to know what a nineteen-year old boy could possibly explain to her about the unfair god that “blessed” her in such a way. How could I explain to a woman who, in an effort to show pity on a deluded and brainwashed young man and tried to convince that I had fallen for a “delusion”, that I had chosen to believe of my own free will and choice, and that it was my choice to teach the gospel I had grown up learning, knowing, and, yes, loving with all my heart? How could I even hope to convince a veteran that had fought in the killing fields of Vietnam, whose lungs had inhaled enough Agent Orange to cause serious and life-threatening damage on its own, that I knew something that could put his heart at ease, in any way?
When Christ healed the man with palsy, he asked a very pointed question to the scribes: “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” Growing up, I used to equate the two in “difficulty”. I don’t equate them anymore. Palsy, leoprosy, blindness, deafness, even the condition of death itself. The human heart is infinitely more difficult to heal.
It’s one thing to give blessings. It’s one thing to baptize. It’s one thing to administer the sacrament.
It is an entirely different thing to look someone in the eyes and tell them that they will never hear something that will matter more to their eternal happiness or misery than what they will hear from me. To do so with a straight face. To do so with as much sincerity, clarity, and quality as such a discussion demands. And to do so for fourteen hours a day for two years.
And Then It Ended
And then I came home early from kidney stone issues. Remember the ureter problem? I had two dime-sized kidney stones that made any movement painful and missionary work impossible. And for the next fifteen years, the bipolar got worse, I never found a medicine that could make the mood swings tolerable, and I lost my grandparents before I ever found the courage to really look at the choices I’d made.
Logically, as a missionary, I knew two things. That the Savior was asking me to help Him carry His cross, and that He promised that His burden was light. But I was not wise enough to realize that the “burden” he was asking me to carry was not merely the one I carried as a missionary. It was the whole of my life. True, He was asking me to carry what I could, enough that I could “walk and not faint“, that I ought not “run faster or labor more than [I] have strength“. I’ll be the first to admit it, I always bite off more than I can chew. I always pick up heavier rocks than I know I can lift. I’m not a wise individual. And I’m a show-off by nature. I added an unnecessary amount of pain to my healing process.
But I did it because I thought I was supposed to. Returned missionaries are always stronger when they come home. Or so I thought. Returned missionaries always return victorious, triumphant, with a greater conviction. Or so I insisted was the case for me. When I came home, no one really asked why I was ten months early. I assume those who cared already knew why. I didn’t really talk about my mission because no one really asked me about it. And when I did, only these negative emotions rose to the surface. Only the bad times came to mind.
I was in a lot of pain. Physically, because of kidney stones. Emotionally, because I had been a psychological and sometimes physical target of ridicule and abuse for fourteen months. And spiritually, because I thought I had utterly failed as a missionary. I had baptized one person personally. A mom who wanted what was best for her and her child. A mom that I had felt guilty teaching (whether or not that guilt was warranted, I don’t honestly know; in my view, the circumstances of it were strange and kind of hard to explain).
I didn’t stay in contact with anyone I met on the mission, besides old companions. I feel bad about that. It was easier to hope that everyone I knew had forgotten about me. Better that they stayed in contact with missionaries that were stronger than me, better examples. Better with the language. More confident in sharing the message. Less ashamed of the good fight. Even now, I’m scared to reach out, even just to say hello. Even now, it hurts to even contemplate improving my Spanish, so ashamed I was (and still am) at my feeble attempts to speak it in the mission field. I did my best in that regard, so I know the shame is unnecessary. But when has necessity ever dictated what I felt?
Was It Worth It Or Not?
The Lord and the prophets have called the trials and tribulations we live through a “refiner’s fire”. The process of ore purification requires a ton of heat to separate the pure metal from the impurities and dross that make the material otherwise unusable.
I like the analogy. The mission is certainly a refiner’s fire, a never-ceasing application of intense heat and pressure. But I feel like we then equate all of life to the same process. But it isn’t. On the whole, life can be spicy, and the conflicts of day-to-day living can get pretty hot. But it’s much more situational. There are episodes of extreme conflict followed by long stretches of relative calm. Life is much more the potter’s game, a longer period of sculpting and formation, with much more emphasis on patience and practice. The mission belongs to the blacksmith, endless hours of heat, hammering at an object that does not like to budge. An intense period of time where chunks of yourself are sheered away in explosions of sparks and flame, and you’re never quite sure if the metal will bend or shatter.
Me? I was pulled out of the forge early. I wasn’t given time to anneal. I hadn’t adjusted to the pressures and the pain that the hammering was inflicting before it all just… vanished.
But just like there are many forms of refining, there are also many different versions of annealing, hardening, or “finishing” metal. The Lord knows my specific alloy. Maybe instead of annealing, I needed another form of finishing to “harden” the faith I had formed.
Maybe my finishing required a process such as this:
Believe me, the narrator in the video stating that the usefulness of the age hardening process depending on the alloy is not lost on me. My kidney stones were a time bomb that went off precisely when it was meant to (whether you, the reader, believe that or not is irrelevant, by the way). For me, the refining process was specific and intense. What it meant is left for me to interpret, the purpose of the final form known fully only to the Master.
Some years ago president David O. McKay told from this pulpit of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay relates an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus: “A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.
“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.
“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.
“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.
“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”
I wish I could say that I had never complained. I wish I could say that I never asked the Lord to tell me why I was feeling so devastated and hopeless, when I did what I knew was right. I wish I could say I always had the right mindset, or had the right perspective. I even wish I could say with certainty that angels had guided my steps in that City of Angels.
But I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have become acquainted with God in the time since. I know that Jesus Christ is my savior, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His ministry, and that there is more to life than the fire.
In that way, I can say with equal surety, that I am glad I served a mission. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That, or the wonderful memories that I’ll share in my next blog.
One of the hardest things about mental illness is feeling pain and anxiety while doing the things you love, to an unbearable degree. But you have to do the things you love. You have to. You have to serve those you love, because the alternative is to give up every good thing you have. So you do your favorite things, and you help your friends and family, and all while your mind is screaming at you to stop.
During depressive episodes, even as I’m going through life as usual, things affect me in ways they shouldn’t. Or, I should say, they affect me in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.
Yesterday was already off to a rough start. In fact, the whole week was, because a depressive episode had started brewing on Monday, skipping a day to begin properly beause who-the-hell-knows-why. I had just finished editing the first four chapters of my book, posting them here on my blog and inviting people to read them if they wanted to. I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback, as usual. I don’t know what kind of audience my book is really for, besides myself. And honestly, not many people have the time to read these days, and even less have a desire to read on a screen instead of on paper. That, I totally get; it’s why I use a text-to-speech program, I always miss punctuaction and spelling when writing online, and that’s when writing, never mind reading. (EDIT: I messed up the previous sentence while writing it, case in point.)
By the afternoon, my sister had stopped by the house to see my mom and dad, and I told her about my writing. I had told my mom about it the day before, and she had started reading it, noting that she hadn’t noticed too many differences in the first two chapters she read. Which was to be expected; chapters three and four were the chapters to receive the greatest amount of change in terms of plot and conversation.
After talking to them about it, I thought I would then message a few online friends about it, to see if they would want to read something I wrote.
And that was the moment it started. That was a trigger.
What the Trigger Triggered
Though my “career” as a writer (if you can call it that) has been rocky because of mental illness, I’ve come to a certain level of awareness about the type of content I produce. In online marketing and content writing, the true purpose of content isn’t necessarily about the meaning of the words you type on the page. SEO marketing (or search engine optimization) depends on the writer using the right keywords and keyphrases to attract people to read whatever is being presented. If I’m doing work for a puppy grooming salon, I write to the topic they want me to advertise, I write the words “puppy grooming” a certain percentage of times, and mention a location, usually the town or city of the business’s physical location (let’s say Burmingham, Alabama). So if people in Burmingham, Alabama look up “puppy grooming” in a Google search, the fact that I used those words tell the search engine to suggest they click on that page, as it may hold the information to the service they’re looking for.
In all likelihood, the person searching Google for “puppy grooming” is not going to read the 600 words I wrote for the page that appears. Unless it’s a blog (and a pretty good one at that), they’re likely going to skip ALL of the words on the webpage to find a phone number, an address, something specific, especially if it’s for a small business with a specific product or service. No one reads the marketing. And why would they? I don’t know anything specific about the businesses I write for, and it’s specifics people are always hunting for.
In other words, you might say that I have spent the majority of my adult life writing for search engines, not for an audience, and certainly not for myself. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for the paychecks, and it certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t learned how to be a better writer by proxy.
But search engines don’t easily demonstrate appreciation. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve received any kind of feedback from my work, negative or positive. Of those, the majority were because I colossally messed something up. That’s not to say I’m a bad writer. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. It’s just the nature of the beast. Even though I always try to find the interesting details, try to throw in some humor with the professional copy, when it comes right down to it, I’m not being paid to be interesting or humourous. I’m being paid for a word count.
I’m a performer for machines.
So, when I finally have the chance to show off a story, a narration that I’ve had locked in my brain for more than a decade, and I’m nervous as hell to do so…
It hurts when I hear nothing back but the same echoing silence.
Cue the Pity Party, Right?
No. That’s the part that I hate the most, actually. I’ve never written anything besides the SEO stuff. I shouldn’t expect anyone else to care even a fraction of what I do for the story I’m trying to tell. Everyone I love, all of my friends, they have their own lives to live, and I should not expect anyone to drop everything they’re doing to read 80 pages of what is likely to be hot garbage. Besides, this is the hobby portion of the thing I love, there is no time limit on its creation or its editing, and I’ve said many times to those of my friends and family who have taken time out of their busy lives to read it that this is a personal project with a target audience of one.
Me. I’m writing this story for me.
But that’s the thing. The story is personal. There are many aspects of the main characters that are facets of myself, or the person I wish I could be. I’ve tried to design these characters to have needs and desires that make them unique. They tell stories to each other, and crack jokes that made me, as the writer, actually laugh out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time crying with these characters, even, and poured a lot of my self-doubt and hatred into a few of the scenes in the book. Perhaps more than I should have, seeing as how I wrote much of the book while dealing with the worse moments of my own life.
Writing is one of the few methods I have at my disposal where I can truly express how I feel. How I see the world. How the world affects me, and how my mind interrupts and distorts the proper flow of information, both in and out. For the majority of words I’ve ever organized into coherency, my writing has been written to be ignored. Sure, word count and percentages aren’t the only things that matter. But I can guarantee that I’ve posted incorrect information that got the job done anyway. And like an electrician, or a plumber, my goal is to make something that works. I only get feedback if I do a bad job wrenching the pipes together.
Just for once, I want to create something that makes people happy for having read it. I want to make someone want to know what happens next. Hell, I want someone to tell me, flat-out, that they read my story and thought it was one of the most boring things they’d ever come across. I would love someone to tell me that my work put them to sleep. That it wasn’t their thing, but they read it because they knew I wrote it.
I’ve performed for machines for so long… and I just want some feedback.
So What Did the Episode Look Like?
Pretty deep depression. The suicidal type, for about a day and a half. Me, wondering if it’s even worth my time to be here. Me, wondering if I’m worth anything more than my physical presence. Me, desperately wanting to talk to someone about it all, but knowing that I will make zero sense, especially if they assume I want “solutions”. Me, wanting a purpose in life but seeing none if I can’t rise above this. And, worst of all, me, wondering what the conversations would be like between my friends and family if I did actually end it (the fact that my diseased brain finds that shit in any way cathartic being the number one reason I should be seeking professional help, but being too scared about money and time to do so).
A lot of “me”. It always is.
At about 11 o’clock P.M., the episode finally lifted. I went downstairs and made some oatmeal butterscotch cookies. Then I jumped on here to write about it.
What I’m Learning
Being off of medication has flipped things one-hundred and eighty degrees, and not in the direction you might think. Not upside-down, but right side-up. I can more easily recognize that it isn’t ME that hates the things I love, that wants me to stop writing, that wants me to hurt. It’s the imbalance. And it has always been the imbalance.
You know what? That’s what you are, officially, with a capital “I”. You are the Imbalance. You are the stain in the mirror. The shadow on the wall. You are the reason I hate myself, and want my time on Earth to end. But you are not me. On medicine, that distinction was so blurred, I could not see where I ended and my shadow began. The window was so blurred, I couldn’t see that the reflection had fangs, and the face of a fallen angel.
You are not me. You are this.
I haven’t learned how to fight back yet, but just the fact that I can recognize the difference… maybe it’s a step forward.
I remembered something called the “sky”. As dimly as the lights in the vault. As dimly as I remembered writing my name on paper for the first time, a big blue ceiling with a bright lightbulb during the day, an endless sea of stars at night. In the exit presentation, Vault Boy reminded us not to stare at the sun or risk permanent blindness. Sure, I thought. Looking right at a lightbulb is kinda dumb. When that great vault door opened, sunlight streamed into the suffocating steel-and-concrete room like an endless flood. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instinctively, I dug into my tool bag strapped around my shoulder to grab my welder’s goggles. Though tinted green through the lenses, I knew I stared into a wall of pure white.
Everyone around me hugged their loved ones or held hands tightly. Some tears were shed. Some prepared to exit the vault with the solemnity of a funeral march. No matter their individual feelings, one thing was emphatically certain: Vault 76 was closed for business, and all the Mr. Handys cheered us on to remind everyone of the fact. Every single dweller crowded inside the atrium cheered as the machinery pulled the gigantic cog aside. With the door open, the air was sheer electricity.
Liz and Liam came to stand by me as the metal catwalk extended. I noticed (as much as I could with welding goggles on) that they both holstered weapons. Liz, a custom-machined six-shooter, and Liam, a brand-new automatic AER9 laser rifle. With my baseball bat tied to my backpack, I suddenly felt very naked. Liam also had a walking stick of sorts, a surprisingly well-kept wooden cane that I’d never seen before.
“Whoa. Liam, that’s a real nice-”
I then felt my goggles fly off my head.
“Don’t be a pansy,” Liam growled, handing me back my eyewear by shoving it against my chest. “The sooner you get used to sunlight, the better.”
“You even remember what the sun feels like?” Liz asked me.
“Sorta,” I mumbled.
Vault staff busily prepared individual teams and approved travel destinations while we stood behind the expectant crowd, so we had some time to examine our new equipment.
The heaviest by far was our C.A.M.P. units. We had been instructed in their use in bimonthly meetings, but to finally have one of my own felt incredibly satisfying. The size of a piece of luggage, I deployed it for just a moment to check out its functionality. A workbench all its own, the C.A.M.P. came with a rotary tool, a small inlaid table saw, a lathe, and a drill press. With a display screen much like my Pip-Boy, the C.A.M.P. came pre-programmed with schematics for machining everything from tools and basic electronics to laboratory equipment and everyday appliances. There were even instructions on how to make stuffed animals.
I noticed one in particular and chuckled; what kind of deal did Vault-Tec have with Radiation King to include detailed instructions on how to repair and replicate their televisions and refrigerators? Or Nuka-Cola with instructions to build their vending machines? I found the thought of a vault filled with company executives just waiting to retake their brands in the nuclear wasteland entertaining.
“What do you think of these perk cards?” Liz asked, flipping through the multi-colored and laminated packets. Wrapped in crisp cellophane, these “cards” measured about four by six inches; some were thin while others were thick enough to be books. Thinking back, of course Vault-Tec would call them “perk cards” — let’s make post-war life collectable! Regardless, each showed Vault Boy performing many different activities. Shooting rifles, mending armor, hauling heavy loads, haggling with merchants. Liz opened one titled “Home Defense” and discovered these cards were, in fact, compact instructional manuals that detailed how to develop the specific skills depicted on the cover. “Wow. Look, there’s codes for our C.A.M.Ps to build military turrets. Biometric sensors. 5.56 and AER9, everything. Missile launchers even? Now that’s living.”
Liam peered over Liz’s arm to look, remaining silent but appearing interested.
I thumbed through my own cards and came across one that looked simple enough to start with: “Inspirational”. I unwrapped the plastic and opened the front cover. From its own description: “Travelling alone in the wilderness? No longer! Become a stalwart leader and ‘inspire’ your group of fellow survivors towards a better tomorrow!” The perk card described ways to rely on your companions as well as boost their morale and talents in times of need. “Feel a boost of confidence and discover all new experiences,” it said. “Learn from your companions as they learn from you! In no time, you’ll be ready to take on even greater challenges. The future is in your hands!”
I shrugged. Might as well start with that. If the little “perk card” could teach me how to learn from Liam and Liz’s skills, I’d take that advice any day.
At last, the crowd began to move forwards, and our fellow vault dwellers stepped into the outside world for the first time in twenty-five years. Liam showed our route to the overseer’s assistant, and I passed him to walk into the warm rays of the sun. Like stepping in front of a gentle radiator, I did exactly what Vault Boy instructed me not to do: I looked upwards at the sun. Now filled with radiation, I stopped and waited for the red mass in my sight to fade. Liz laughed and patted my shoulder. Leading me forwards, I soon saw the most glorious image I had ever seen before: the whole of Appalachia. Maple trees whose red and orange leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze, the baby-blue sky that went on and on, and distant rain clouds creating a veil of grey some miles south. In the distance I could see the colossal digging machines that once excavated Mount Blair. I’d never imagined the great Appalachian mountain range and West Virginia’s forests would be so beautiful. I’d seen such sights in the holovids, sure, but nothing compared to seeing it in person.
Now no longer completely blind, I realized the first hint of the world I’d stepped into: the railing upon which I laid my hands flaked with red-iron stains, leaving rust on my fingers. The mighty billboard some meters to my right stood, but only barely, as the metal struts had deteriorated greatly. I looked around me, and saw stone benches chipped, broken, and storm weathered. The poles that once gave light were entirely rusted and useless, their bulbs shattered. Even the hills surrounding the plaza had collapsed, covering the concrete floor in rocks and piles of soil-wash.
All the now-previous inhabitants of Vault 76 grouped together and gazed in awe of the outside world. Just as before, some trembled at the cool autumn air, some celebrated, and some were already breaking off and heading west. As I saw them depart, I lifted up my Pip-Boy to my view and checked out the Geiger counter and health screen. I half-expected to be glowing within half an hour, but I heard no clicking, and Vault Boy was as happy as I’d ever seen him.
“So this is what we have to work with,” Liz said, doing the very same thing with her Pip-Boy. She lowered it and looked outwards to the horizon. “Huh. I expected worse.”
“We haven’t seen anything yet,” Liam said, joining us with his regular step-clank limp. “Sure, it looks pretty, but I’m more worried about what lives out there.”
“That’s what we have you for, Peters.”
“And that’s what I have you for, Liz,” Liam said emphatically. “And you, Greg. I’ll have your back, and I expect you both to have mine.”
“You bet. We’re a crew, right?” I said.
“Right,” she said with a grin. “We got a name for this crew of ours? Oughta make it official.”
Liam rolled his eyes.
“If that’s the kind of crew I’m in, I’ll go back inside and leave you to it.”
“Come on, Liam, don’t be a bulkhead, ” I said. “Hey, what about the Bulkheads?”
“Nah, you’ll make us sound stupid. Hmm. How about the 76ers?”“I’m pretty sure that’s the name of a baseball team.”
“And I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the 46ers. Austin, Texas, I think.”
“Ah, whatever. Besides, we wouldn’t stand out from all the others. How about the Operators? Like, operating heavy machinery?”
“You’re gonna make us sound all mafia-like. Don’t you remember ‘Dully Williams and the Gangsters of Villa Nueva’? Like we’re ‘operating’ a laundering scheme or something.”
“Oh yeah. Forgot about that vid. I liked that one.”
“Oh hell, you two,” Liam said, taking a step away from us cane-first. “We’re burning daylight. Talk about your dumb little names on the road.”
We headed towards the stairs that led east when we began hearing screaming. Over the railing, I saw the lower plaza level (where the Mr. Handy named Pennington had set up happy yellow-and-blue balloons) and quickly recognized the cause: a rotting corpse of a man lay at the stairs besides the enthusiastic robot. One vaulter, Julian Colter, I believe, held people back from the body as the groups continued to the dirt path down the stairs.
“Poor bastard,” Liam said, looking below with me. “Probably looking for safety in the vault.”
“But there’s no way he died twenty-five years ago.”
“Nah, he’s probably a survivor what got his ass handed to him by someone else with a gun,” Liz said. “Or sickness, maybe. The meetings always said critters would turn into radioactive monsters, but I don’t know if I believe it. Rabid, sure, but full of rads?”
“Come on, people, keep it moving,” Colter said, waving my fellow vaulters on. When one older woman expressed pity, he added: “Don’t worry, our group will come back and bury the poor fellow. Keep moving.”
When it was our turn to pass, I got a good look at him. Wearing ratty clothing, the man’s skin had turned a bluish-green, what remained of his hair matted beneath a red leather cap. His smell caught my nostrils as I passed, and I nearly gagged. Fortunately, it’s a smell I would soon become very accustomed to.
“Yup, recent,” Liam said. “I doubt Pennington even noticed him when setting up the damn balloons.”
“Arrivederci!” Pennington shouted to the departing vault dwellers, all but confirming Liam’s theory. “Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen! Goodbye, my friends! Good luck out there! Stay safe!”
“I miss Sparks already,” Liz said with slight contempt in her voice.
“Come on, Sonny, we’ll find another Mr. Handy out here somewhere. You’ve still got his memory chip, right?”
“Yup. Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ll have a mechanical army soon enough.”
I gave Liz a face behind her back as we continued past the deceased man.
“Enough with the kiddo kid junk. You ever going to stop calling me that?”
“Nope, never will.”
For thirty minutes, most of Vault 76 continued down the steep trail that led towards the 88 highway. As far as switchbacks go, it shouldn’t have been difficult. But at that time of my life, the most cardio I did on a regular basis was a few hours in the vault gym every week. Sure, I wasn’t out of shape, but I had never walked on uneven ground in my entire life, much less did so with a fifty-pound pack on my back. By the time we reached semi-flat earth, I wished I had brought one of the vault sweatbands with me.
Hiking through the trees and smelling pure nature for the first time is something I’ll never forget and never stop enjoying. I’ll be honest: the Forest is the only place I’ll consider setting up my C.A.M.P. anymore. Every part of West Virginia is beautiful, but only the Forest provided good hunting and relatively radiation-free soil. The water’s terrible. But then again, the water’s terrible everywhere. At least the lurks won’t jump out and snap your head off. Just your fingers, maybe. But I digress.
Checking my fold-up Vault-Tec-brand map of the area, it seemed like we’d run across a lumber mill of sorts. A place where wood was processed into planks used in house construction. I only knew this from the holotapes.
The group that stayed together and traveled east down the path numbered about one-hundred or so. A bunch of blue-and-gold wide-eyed vault dwellers: the perfect target.
Entering the mill yard, most of the group remained very quiet. Some kept the group together, leading them forwards. Then, ever the leader, Colter stood upon an abandoned wood pile and turned to address us.
“This is where we begin our reclamation,” he said. “Once we power this mill, we will have all the construction materials we need to rebuild, providing homes and shelter for all of us.”
He might have been right. The lumber mill even included yellow protectrons with saws and clamps for appendages that continued harvesting the nearby woods, declaring a needless intent to: “Chop wood. Chop wood. Chop wood.” No doubt they’d been working for the last twenty-five years by the amount of wood waiting to be processed. To a burly 76er nearest to it, it plopped a pile of wood into his arms with the words: “Please, enjoy this complimentary sample of wood.”
“Those might work,” Liz said with a grin, whispering over Colter’s continuing speech. “What do you think? We’d have all the materials we’d need to build our garage.”
“Wood, though?” I said with a grimace. “I was thinking straight to metal and concrete.”
Liam, behind us, scanned what remained of the treeline.
“I don’t like it. This place. It’s too exposed.”
“Exposed to what?” Liz asked.
“Everything,” he replied. “Gunfire, radioactive freaks. Whatever’s out there could see us for half a mile.”
Liz and I also turned to look, and the old man was right.
Very, very right.
Colter’s speech was then immediately hushed as the entire crowd gasped in awe of a figure emerging from the treeline. Then another. Then another. From the back of the group, I couldn’t get a proper look at them. But everyone else did.
“Survivors!” declared some voices. “Are they dressed?” said two or three.
“Hello!” Colter said with a grand swing of his arms. “Hello my fellow survivors! We are inhabitants of Vault 76, here to reclaim the wasteland and restore America to its former glory! Please, don’t be afraid, we are peaceful!”
At first, the three, then four, then five figures did not advance. They seemed to view us timid dwellers with great interest. For a minute or so. Murmurs of unrest rose from my fellows.
“Grab your bat, Greg,” Liam said, untying my weapon from my pack and latching his cane to his hip. As I readied myself for a melee, I heard the soldier insert a micro-cell into his laser rifle, making an electric click-bwee that told me that safeties were off.
“I know they are,” Liam said. “Come on, this way. We’ll wide circle around them and head for Flatwoods once we can’t see ‘em.”
We three broke from the group, heading north and keeping to the edge of the treeline. Off the path, the terrain grew steeper, and I stumbled more than a few times. Fallen and unretrieved logs made hiking difficult. I looked back, and saw many 76ers watch us retreat; more than a few I recognized from security made to the lumber mill interior in front of the large crowd, raising and preparing their own weapons.
“Please, come forward! We would like to make peace with you and your-”
One of the security staff grabbed Colter by the arm and brought him down, no doubt whispering to him of the potential danger.
The six, the seven, and the eight figures emerged from the trees and began to walk forwards. Security held their ground behind the processed logs while the group itself began to shuffle away from them. A growl called out from the forest, and three more human-like creatures appeared very close to us, limping down the trail we’d just descended.
Then, the screaming. God, the screaming. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since, but I’ll never forget the first mindless screech of the ghouls surrounding us. They descended upon the crowd from the south, nineteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven. I’m only guessing at the numbers, but I don’t exaggerate: they heard us all, and they came like a tidal wave of fury.
Security opened fire. The naked and emaciated husks of humanity fell easily enough, but two replaced each one that fell. The front of the group became the first victims. Ghouls jumped and tore at my fellow vault dwellers with diseased claws and gnarled teeth. Many of the vault dwellers weren’t equipped with weapons, and so fell to the wave of terror. Sure, our vault suits protected us from bites and scratches, but that’s not where the ghouls were aiming. Blood and flesh flew into the air as they ripped into necks, hands, anything exposed. Some fought back successfully, shoving the ghouls back. Many did not. The second layer of vault dwellers, at least the men, grappled with the monsters and attempted to save their fellows and loved ones. Some were successful, the more prepared 76ers clobbering and slashing the fiends with security batons and makeshift machetes we’d crafted in maintenance. The least fortunate were tackled by three, four, and five ghouls, brought to the ground and ripped apart.
Layer by layer, the ghouls flung themselves at my fellow vault dwellers as they retreated into the mill. Security continued their fire, but bullets only did so much to the horde. Those inside the mill held their own. Those less lucky holed up inside the ruined building beside it to the south. I never saw what happened to them.
“Come on, come on!” Liam hissed, his robotic leg having trouble through the brush. “Come on, get into the trees, quickly now.”
More than distracted, I watch the scene unfolding. Bloodied bodies strewn upon the ground marked the ghouls’ advance. Security’s defence seemed to waver as gunfire peppered in and out. The more intelligent and fortunate groups fled through the mill and east. I couldn’t see anything else besides the monsters entering the mill with shrieks of madness. They don’t devour the dead for sustenance; they simply attack for rage’s sake, and I witnessed that first hand.
“Don’t look back, boy, don’t look back,” Liam said to me, waving me on. I obeyed.
The ghouls didn’t see us. Pure luck. Maybe my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. test had been right about me.
First thing’s first: I entered Vault 76 at the age of five. My mother was a famous opera singer, and my father was First Chair violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C.. Somehow, Dad convinced Vault-Tec that I was some musical prodigy that could rattle off Rachmaninoff with one hand tied behind my back. Turns out they didn’t even question it. We almost got chosen for Vault 92 because of my parents’ musical expertise. Someone named Professor Malleus insisted upon it. But, for some reason, we were instructed to stay in West Virginia near Vault 76 until a decision could be made.
When the bombs dropped, Dad told me he and Mom were positively terrified that we would be denied entry to the vault because of our representative’s indecision. But, believe it or not, our names were on the list, and the soldiers ushered us through the giant cog of a vault door.
My musical deception made it through orientation, settling into our living quarters, and three minutes before my music teacher assignment. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face as I was asked to play the first of Bach’s Fifth. I plunked the keys on the piano as if I were learning to type on a computer keyboard. Needless to say, the vault teachers that thought I was a piano prodigy for the ages were furious. The vault staff harshly rebuked my parents. I don’t remember the specifics of the shouting match. But, of course, they couldn’t just throw me out.
So, at first, the vault personnel sent me to the only job a non-best-of-the-best was suited for: waste disposal.
Down in 76, pre-war prestige didn’t mean much. But waste disposal? Mom cried every evening I came home covered in who-knows-what, and I’ve never seen my Dad so mad. He shouted at the busy staff for four days as I sat in the smelly innards of 76, spending most of my time crying and getting in the way of Mr. Handys. He demanded to speak to the overseer, but seeing that the vault had just gone into full service, he was repeatedly told the overseer had no time for his, and I quote, “talentless parasite”. At last, and with enough noise to pierce thick steel walls, the overseer was called down. She immediately realized putting a child down there was a mindless and ridiculous idea, even if said child was “smuggled” in. After rebuking the vault staff as harshly as they had my Dad (much to his delight), her compromise was to ask if vault maintenance would take me on as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts. The decision changed the course of my life. Mr. Donovan, Ms. Sonny, and Sparks (our custom Mr. Handy) became my second family, and the workshop on the third floor became a home away from home (even if my two homes were only a couple dozen meters away).
I learned everything there is to know about building a water purifier with my eyes closed, how to scrap a Corvega engine from the bare block and back, and fix faulty wiring when the lights went out. The best and the brightest, right? I’m not one to toot my own horn, but if I had been old enough to work for Vault-Tec before the War, they would have told me to slow down. I learned arithmetic by the millimeter, reading from nights staring at green lines of programming text, leadership skills from projects Mr. Donovan entrusted to me, and, yes, music from the rhythmic hum of a well-tuned nuclear generator. And to you Mr. Jonsen, you flat-footed germ of a man, it was me who fixed your busted Pip-Boy week after week. How you managed to get Fancy Lad snack cake crumbs behind the circuit board always astounded me.
I regularly brought up equipment like soldering irons, silicon boards, and vacuum tubes up to my room, even when the overseer cracked down on maintenance for working on personal projects. I impressed her and the vault staff, though, when I replicated a water chip by myself from studying a real one. She even allowed me to test it on water purifier number four. To my great relief, it did not blow any fuses (of which, Sparks regularly reminded me, we only had a finite amount). While Mr. Donovan reckoned it would only last a few weeks on its own before it burned out, I made a name for myself with that little stunt. By the time I was sixteen, I’d gone from apprentice to vault maintenance assistant to Mr. Donovan.
You’d think the older mechanics and electricians would look down on me for my age and inexperience. On the contrary, I was treated more than fairly by Donovan, Sonny, Franklin, Eugene, and all the rest. It was the other inhabitants of the vault that looked down on me and all of maintenance. For this reason, we all kept to each other for the most part.
The only other inhabitant of the vault I ever became friends with was Liam Peters, the security guard that kept the peace in the maintenance wing. He was in his late twenty’s back then (his wife had been nine years older; I still don’t know why that was so scandalous to others). When there was no peace to enforce (which was often), we talked a lot about pre-war life. Well, he did most of the talking, and I the asking questions. He wasn’t a normal vault dweller. For one, he had been a private during the actual Battle of Anchorage. For second, he had an honest-to-God metal leg identical to an assaultron from the RobCo technical manual that replaced his entire left leg. No wonder we had the manual!
During the final push to retake the oil refinery on the outskirts of the city, he took a bullet that shattered his left hip. He was, quote, “on the battlefield until the god damn end”. Gangrene took his upper leg, and there was no saving the lower for the upper. For his service, and because of his particular injury, the “RobCo Valiant Service Reconstruction Project” offered him a chance to walk on two feet again, and he accepted.
“If I had known what a piece of shit this leg of mine would be,” he said. “I would have chosen crutches.”
Again, because of his service, he accepted the offer for a place in Vault 76, so long as his wife was admitted as well. The only reason they agreed was because Mrs. Donna Peters was secretary to one Nicholas O’Leary who was a West Virginian Representative. Apparently, O’Leary gave a glowing endorsement, and that’s all it took.
And then she died in 79’. Hemorrhagic stroke. The first death in Vault 76, and she was only 39.
From the moment I met Liam, I knew why he patrolled the maintenance wing: if anything happened to that leg of his, no one in the Vault could easily carry him to the elevators (his robot leg weighed seventy pounds alone). His quarters were right next to the elevator as well, and he could always radio us for assistance. He carried a fusion power pack on his hip to power the thing, so the battery was never the issue. It was the chain-wheel assembly that pressurized the actuators. The chain would always slip no matter how many times we sharpened the wheel gears, and he’d be “limping” into the shop at least once every two or three weeks. Still, he had a hell of a right hook when hot-headed maintenance guys got into fights, and he stepped on more than a few toes (literally, not figuratively) to keep everything on the level.
Vault 76, with all of its politicians, soldiers, artists, inventors, biologists, they all grew older, and some of the more posh became wary of Reclamation Day. No one said so out loud, but the thought of leaving the vault to “reclaim” the nuclear wastes of the outside world brought a nervous air to every meeting and every presentation.
But not me. I couldn’t wait. Neither could many of my maintenance friends; a world with few survivors meant a near unlimited supply of tools, parts, and equipment. Every member of the hydroponics team were thrilled at the prospect of studying post-war flora and water radiation levels. Even the lead physician seemed keen on the great day, even though Dr. Madison acknowledged that there would be no end of patients eager for medical assistance. There were many vaults in West Virginia, and connecting with them would make reclamation all the easier.
My parents were also nervous, but seeing my enthusiasm, they softened to the idea of bringing culture to any survivors on the outside. After all, surely some had survived the awful twenty-five years of post-war life. Dad would play his violin for crowds once more, and my mother’s voice would soothe the weary souls of travelers and vault dwellers alike.
And then Dad passed away. Three years before Reclamation Day. His death devastated Mom, and my dreams of building a post-war home for him faded in an instant. A heart attack, Dr. Madison said. He was 67 in 99’. Mom mourned for an awful long time, and returning home every night from the workshop became depressingly dark. Like Liam, the loss a spouse made survival inside a vault feel meaningless. A bleak future outside, emptiness inside. Her health took a turn for the painful, as even Dr. Madison didn’t have the resources to perform a hip replacement.
Mom took her own life in March of 2102. Overdose on painkillers and alcohol. Willingly or accidental, no one could say.
But I knew.
No longer part of a family, the overseer moved me to a smaller single living quarters, and Mr. Donovan allowed me time off to grieve. I feel ashamed to say that I didn’t require much time. I had already done my grieving for Dad, and living with Mom, so lifeless in comparison… She didn’t even sing anymore after Dad died.
Reclamation Day came faster than everyone expected. The night before the fraptious day, the whole vault partied hard. It lasted well into the night and early morning. I listened to the cheers of the vault soccer teams playing one last game, heard the toasts with 76’s remaining stock of bourbon and wine, and smelled hamburgers and fresh-baked apple pies. But I was upstairs in my quarters, writing in my journal. I had filled my backpack with all of my tools and projects. I wasn’t depressed, exactly. But when Liam knocked on my door to see why I wasn’t at the party, he sat down and we talked for a while.
Seeing my map laid out on my desk, he asked me where I planned to go.
“I’m not sure,” I said glumly. “See if there’s a trader in Flatwoods who likes fusion batteries, trade them for some food, and head to my parent’s old apartment.”
“An empty stomach and a baseball bat,” Liam said with a smirk, eyeing my “weapon” that leaned against my dresser. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”
“Dad and Mom always told me they left things there when they ran to the vault. I figure it’s as good a start as any.”
“Well, we’ll have to buy you a 10-mil. No use getting killed by some mangy dog before you get there.”
I couldn’t speak for a moment.
“…you-you’re coming with me?”
“Are you joking?” he said with a laugh. “You think I can fix my leg out there on my own? Donovan’s an old coot, Sparks ain’t comin’, and who knows what Sonny’s plans are. You’re the only one I trust.”
That’s when the crying part happened.
About two hours into our conversation and planning session, I heard another knock on my door. The bulkhead opened, and Sonny looked right at me with her regularly intense stare. On her shoulder was her tool bag.
“You prepping for tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Why?” Liam asked. “You plan on beating us to Charleston?”
“No,” Sonny said. “I’m coming with you. And I don’t care what you say.”
Again, I couldn’t say a word. I hardly expected this. Who would follow a 30-year old into the West Virginia wilderness armed with only scrap parts and a baseball bat?
“Are you serious?”
“Hah! You think you can just barge in here and demand a place on our crew?” Liam asked, folding his arms.
“Hah, crew? Two ain’t a crew. Three’s a crew.”
“It does take two people to fix your leg,” I said to the grizzled soldier.
Liam peered at Sonny.
“You’re good with a wrench, I’ll give you that. Almost as good as the kid. But what else you bringing to the table? Two car mechanics and a washed-up private doesn’t make for much survival.”
“Thought you might say that.”
Sonny then opened her bag and produced two pressurized needles filled with crimson life-restoring liquid. There were many, many more inside.
“Whoa, stimpacks? Where did you get those?”
“They ain’t giving these out until tomorrow,” Liam gruffed. “You think you can bribe us with meds? Besides, you probably stole ‘em from the clinic. That don’t make you a medic.”
“I’ll have you know I got these legitimate-like. I’ve worked with Dr. Madison more than a few times. I even helped with surgery once. I reckon I can heal bullet wounds better than anyone in this vault. Save for Mr. Madison, of course.”
“You ‘reckon’?” Liam asked. “Now that sure fills me with confidence.”
“Hey, there’s safety in numbers, right?” I said. “Three C.A.M.P.s are better than two.”
“We really plan on camping, huh?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Say we set up right next to each other, put up some walls, rig up a motion alarm, and we’ll have a fortress we can call home. Heck, we could even set up shop next to the power plant outside Charleston. We could use the power, and I’ll bet that place is full of supplies.”
“So long as you bring a hazmat suit,” Sonny said. “But that does sound like a good idea. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of an actual nuclear power plant. Provided some yokel with a gun ain’t beat us to it.”
“True, kid. I can guarantee the folks left in the capital have restored power already.”
“Then let’s help ‘em out. What do you think? Build a garage, get paid, and run the best machine shop this side of the Ohio River!”
Sonny gave her own peculiar sideways grin, and Liam shrugged.
“I’ve heard worse plans,” he said. “Better than the one you started with.”
“I’m definitely up for it,” Sonny said. “Heh, you’ve always been the one with your metal head in the clouds. No wonder Donovan picked you as his assistant.”
“And you’ve been the troublemaker, ‘Liz,” Liam said. “Don’t make me play the discipline committee out there.”
“Says the tin man with bullets in his brain,” Sonny teased. She then smiled. “This oughta be fun.”
A holotape discovered by Vault 76 survivors in the ruins of the Nuka-Cola Bottling Plant east of Flatwoods on the edge of the Ohio River.
Nuka-Cola Plant Record: written by Erica Daniels.
March 4th, 2078:
Yes! Absolute jackpot! The moment I saw it on the map, I knew it was the thing we’ve been searching for. If there is anything that could uplift the spirits of the Responders and the people they’re assisting, it’s a taste of the pre-war world to enjoy. And what’s better than Nuka-Cola? As far as I can tell, all of the machinery is more or less intact. All it’s going to require is a bit of oil to grease up the gears, as many glass bottles as we can find, and a few wrenches to keep it maintained. After all, I’ve heard these bottling machines can be a bit finicky; the bottles jam in the hoppers the moment you stop paying attention.
I blame the bottle designers. Sure, the shape is iconic. But having to clear jams every hour is a pain in the ass.
March 12th, 2078:
Seventeen crates ready to go! I had one myself, and my Geiger counter spiked. It was perfect! The selfish part of me tells me to charge for them, considering how rare they are anymore (all of the vending machines in Charleston were looted in the first two weeks), but who would do that, honestly? I mean, it’s not even that paper money has officially lost its value. But there are so many orphans in the city that need some kind of comfort, even if it’s just a bottle of ice cold cola. Well… they might not be ice-cold by the time they get there, but you know what I mean.
To my sheer disappointment, the storage tanks for the Strontium-85 had deteriorated… no, melted. No doubt by the Strontium-85 itself. It was never meant to stay in storage tanks for long, anyway. There was certainly a bright blue glow, but I didn’t dare reprogram the systems to process Nuka-Cola Quantum with contaminated radioactive ingredients. I’ve had a clean one before, and it felt like my brain was being smashed with a fruit-flavored brick… along with my pee glowing blue for a week. I heard people died flavor testing the thing. Sure, they were just rumors, but I’m not about to try getting the recipe wrong on purpose.
I didn’t want to disturb the dust of a deteriorating factory, but curiosity got the better of me. I explored the taste testing booths, and what I found blew me away. I can’t type in the entire non-disclosure or liability papers, but holy hell… They’re pretty brutal. Even donating plasma for the war effort didn’t have this many terms of agreement. And one of the taste results I read? It sounds like the guy ascended into nirvana. No thanks, I’ll keep my mortal mind restrained to reality, I think.
April 2nd, 2078:
Hoo boy, I’m glad I’m all the way out here and not in Morgantown. Heard Captain Larkin and Chief Mayfield have more than a bad feud going on between them. Can’t believe Mayfield fired on students at VTU… I didn’t go to no fancy-schmancy university, but kids are kids. It’s not like a few broken windows and walls of graffiti are going to affect us any worse than the gosh-darn end of the world already has.
Keeping that in mind, I sent fifteen crates (ninety-six bottles times four columns, for those keeping count) up to the University. I made certain to send a message with the boys that the Nuka was for the fire department, the police, and the students. A liquid peace treaty, if you like.
So, for the month of March, that’s ninety-seven crates sent out, forty-three to Charleston, twenty-five to Morgantown, eight to Flatwoods (in exchange for two mechanics and machine parts), seven with the medical teams, six to VTU, and eight given out free to refugees who pass by the factory.
I’m going to be very sad when the ingredients in this factory run out. I’ve seen a lot of faces brighten up to drink Nuka-Cola again. From what I hear, the next closest Nuka Bottling Plant is in D.C., and I’m not about to travel east; from the stories the refugees tell me, the capital got blown to hell and back. I realized that offering irradiated soda to already sickly irradiated people wasn’t a good idea, but just the opportunity of tasting America’s number-one soda again made people happy for the first time in months. These moments make enduring the factory’s lack of air conditioning and constant assembly line malfunctions worth it.
Who knew the Nuka-Cola corporation would become a non-profit?
May 16th, 2078:
Well, it was too good to last. This Tuesday at two o’clock, the red lights came on and the line halted. All of the ingredient tanks were empty, except for one with a peculiar scent of seventeen fruit-flavors and rubbing alcohol. Better yet, when I opened it, an explosion of flies burst out like the damn plagues of Egypt. It wasn’t until I checked the terminal in a panic that I realized that this particular tank was disconnected from the line. A few of the boys saw it happen, and they all swore to secrecy. Dodged a very large bullet there, and I’m not about to tell anyone.
This morning Captain Larkin and her fellow officers stopped by the factory and congratulated us personally. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s not just soda,” she told us. “And it’s more than just morale. It’s a sign that we can bring the world back again with a wrench and a bit of willpower.” That made this whole venture worth it. She even told me that my stubborn captain-of-the-guard brother Tom sent his gratitude; apparently his men loved the factory’s particular post-war taste.
Anyway, the boys and I cracked open the line’s last bottles of icy cola with Captain Larkin and her group. We sent the last four crates with them as well. And now it’s just clean-up duty. We’ll scavenge what we can and send it off to Charleston.
I wonder where me and the boys will go next. I hear there’s a giant teapot right up the hill, and I’m dying for some authentic sweet tea.
Discovered by Vault 76 survivors within the mainframe of the Appalachian Monorail Elevator’s second level. Recording as follows (transcript included).
October 23rd, 8:11 AM.
AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected a minor fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is ten to fifteen minutes. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.
October 23rd, 9:48 AM.
AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected an unexpected fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is two to four hours. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.
October 23rd, 9:49 AM.
AMS would like to inform all passengers of B car that a major fault has been discovered in train car coupler. Expected maintenance wait time is seven to ten days. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. We remind you to keep all legs, hands, and arms inside the monorail car at all times. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.
October 23rd, 11:22 PM.
Alert: all passengers are reminded to please remain in their seats with their legs, hands, and arms inside the cabin at all times. Exit doors should remain closed for your safety. In case of medical emergency, first aid supplies can be found at the front and rear of the car. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.
Error: Unable to reset train car exit doors. Maintenance and authorities have been notified.
Jacob tried to sleep. His watch was in fifteen minutes, and he hadn’t slept a wink. But the thought of Julia, alone in Charleston…
That’s a stupid thought, he mused. There’s over two-thousand people in Charleston. She can’t possibly be less alone. She’s probably the least ‘alone’ person in all of Appalachia, possibly the whole of America. Be honest: you’re less worried about her and more selfish about yourself.
Here he was, shivering in a ratted sleeping bag beneath an equally-ratted tent on the road to Summersville Dam. The night of Christmas Eve. Naturally, he’d drawn the short stick for dam patrol. Of course he’d drawn the short stick. Larkin always had a stick up her ass when it came to patrol orders, but maybe this time she had a point calling for double duty. The raiders that came down from Pleasant Valley the day before were anything but pleasant, and chose a fine time to hit the city. And who knew when more would be back. Every able-bodied Responder was on high alert while everyone else in the valley tried their best to stay optimistic.
That Christmas, the engineers chopped down the biggest tree they could haul, raised it in the center of the capitol building rotunda, and, with help from all the children and orphans, decorated it with tinsel, electric lights, and as many unbroken baubles as they could find.
Even with the threat of limited medical supplies and food, a meager supply of bullets and weapons, and the constant pall of danger from the mountain, the Responders and all the people under the care could forget that the bombs had dropped for at least one night. Food would be plentiful. Cake and cookies, whiskey for the adults, Nuka-Cola for the kids. Presents would be passed around, working appliances, toys, tools, and scavenged cigars. Then, at midnight, Christmas carols followed by a long winter’s nap.
And Jacob was chattering his teeth out on the road to nowhere without a single hint of season’s cheer.
“Fuck,” he growled, turning over. He waited two minutes more to see if his core would flare to life. It did not.
“Fuck it!” he shouted, scrambling out of his sleeping bag in a frozen rage. By the time he’d flailed his way out of the tent, he’d already turned into a solid. He bitterly pulled and tied his hood over his head, bending down to retrieve his hunting rifle. At the same time, the ammo in his loose pocket fell to the ground; at least he’d remembered to put the seven-round clips inside a bag this time.
Jacob then heard the deep chuckle of Kuznetsov some meters away.
“Found a snake in your sleeping bag?”
“Don’t laugh at me, Kuv,” Jacob said, his voice cracking and his rifle barely hanging from his shoulder by the strap. “How the hell do you stand this cold, anyway? You don’t even have a hood.”
At first, the old man did not answer. He inhaled the last of his Tortoise and threw the cigarette butt to the ground.
“Where are you from, Vickens?” he asked with his thick accent, blowing addictive comfort into the air.
Jacob lifted his rifle to check the action. Naturally, it hadn’t been oiled in some time. But neither had any gun in Charleston’s arsenal.
“Beckley,” he said.
“Aye. But where are you really from?” Kuznetsov said with a lilt in his voice.
Jacob frowned and sighed. He’d been partnered with the old man for a week or so, and he found Kuznetsov a quiet but sturdy individual. Jacob wondered if he had been a Commie sympathizer before the War. Not that it mattered anymore anyway. Warming his fingerless gloves with steaming breath, Jacob regretted the fact that no one in the US ever needed to design a gun that worked with mittens.
“New Mexico, if you must know,” Jacob said. “Santa Fe.”
“The desert boy stuck in the freezer,” Kuznetsov said with a chuckle, a small grin forming behind his bushy mustache.
“Hah hah,” Jacob replied with a roll of his eyes. “Laugh it up. Besides, if I didn’t tell you, you’d keep digging.”
“You know me so well.”
“So where are you from, huh? Somewhere cold, I’ll bet. Moscow or something?”
The old man shook his head and adjusted his hat.
“Hah, Moscow. I love Americans,” he said. “So ignorant about every country besides their own.”
“That’s because ours is the best one out there,” Jacob said with a smile, leaning on his heels.
“Now there’s a fine patriot.”
It was silent for a moment, wind whistling through the trees. Even then, the ice and snow created an echo chamber of the visible quarter-mile.
“Well, russki?” Jacob said. “Are you going to reveal your mysterious origins?”
Kuznetsov eyed Jacob for a moment. He couldn’t tell, but Kuznetsov appeared to be judging whether Jacob was worthy of that piece of information.
“Kiev,” Kuznetsov said at last.
Jacob’s brow furrowed.
“Keeve? Where the hell’s that?”
Kuznetsov folded his hands in front of him, perhaps restraining them before they became fists. Jacob could never tell if the man wanted to give him a hug or strangle him.
“Ukrayina,” he replied. After a moment, he added, “Ukraine, to you.”
“Ukraine, huh?” Jacob asked. But then something clicked. “So you ain’t a russki after all?”
“Niet. But I might as well be, since no one could tell the difference after the invasions. I left Kiev with my wife in ‘45. Back then, you don’t walk the street with less than three people unless you like being mugged. We come to America hoping it would be safer here. It was not. I was attacked many times because of my accent. Our home was broken into many times.”
“Damn,” Jacob said. “Did you call the police at all?”
“And what would that do? I’d go to prison for accusing red-blooded Americans for assaulting a Communist. I would disappear, like many of my neighbors.”
Jacob nodded. His face then darkened.
“It wasn’t right,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say anything. In high school, I’d always hear about some jock being scolded just because they wore a red jacket, or some girl saying something the teachers didn’t like to hear. A Korean kid in my class was taken by policemen in the middle of my history lecture sophomore year. Turns out his whole family was shipped somewhere. He wasn’t a commie at all, he just looked Chinese.”
Kuznetsov was silent.
“I was always the joke at SF High, too. I’m haemophilic, see. It’s only moderate, but it was enough to make me 4-F. All of my friends got shipped off to Anchorage, and I get stuck working as an electrician. Everybody thought I was dodging the draft after I graduated. So I thought I’d disappear, too.”
“You would rather die on the battlefield than live in your homeland?” asked Kuznetsov.
“Sure, if you call this living, freezing my ass off on Christmas Eve.”
“Your job is important. You have water, cram, a warm bed,” Kuznetsov said, tilting his head with every item. “Medicine sometimes.”
“And you defend the defenseless. Your friends may have died for their country, but you live for what remains of it.”
Jacob thought for a moment, adjusting his rifle.
“I guess you’re right,” he said.
“You have family left?” Kuznetsov asked.
The gravel and dirty snow on the uneven road cracked beneath Jacob’s feet.
Kuznetsov’s head tilted towards him.
“Try to make one of your own, then?”
Jacob laughed lightly.
“Yeah. I’ve got a girl. Her name’s Julia. You may have seen her at dinner.”
“Julia. Hmm. Not beautiful Julia that works in the infirmary?”
“Yeah, she’s the one. She’s doing God’s work while I fix light switches.”
“You need light to see, don’t you? And she can’t heal without light.”
Jacob laughed again, deeper this time.
“Now you’re starting to sound like Father Gilbert.”
“I suppose I do.”
“You said you had a wife,” Jacob said without thinking. “Is she here? With the Responders?”
Kuznetsov remained silent. Again, Jacob couldn’t read his face. Uncomfortable, Jacob turned away, content to scan the treeline.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was an awful private question.”
“Of all the places we went together, I think here, in Charleston, would have been her favorite.”
“You think she could stand Philip’s cook-”
Right past Jacob’s ear.
Followed by a not-so-distant crack.
“Derr`mo!” shouted Kuznetsov, shoving Jacob towards the treeline. Jacob hardly processed what had happened by the time he and the Ukranian had collapsed off the side of the road: someone had nearly taken off his head with a crisp .308 round. Kuznetsov was on his feet before Jacob had a chance to catch his breath, finding cover behind a fallen tree and firing his rifle into the distance. “On your feet, Vickens! On your feet!”
Jacob shook the dizzy out of his head and hoisted himself to his knees. On habit, he again checked the action on his rifle. His mind then frantically remember something of vital import: he couldn’t fire his gun without bullets. Kuznetsov was already on his third clip before Jacob could tear open his ammo bag with trembling fingers.
It was then he heard the shouting. God, the shouting. The snow must have amplified the sound of a raider rampage, because there was no way that many were advancing.
“Why are they attacking the dam!” Jacob shouted above the din of Kuznetsov’s fire, joining him at the fallen tree. “There’s no one up here!”
“Think, boy!” Kuznetsov shouted back. “If the dam comes down, all of Charleston goes with it!”
“Comes down?! Wha- The raiders would need artillery, or, or, bulldozers! Or-”
“Jacob, I need you to run!” Kuznetsov shouted, firing again. “Run and alert the rest of the men. Peterson and the others won’t be able to hold the dam themselves!”
“What?!” Jacob shouted as a bullet tore off bark from their cover. “You’re coming with me!”
“Damn it, boy! Peterson will be on his way! Go tell Larkin what is happening!”
“You don’t know that! Kuz, you’re going to get yourself killed!”
“And you’re going to get us all killed if you don’t go!”
Kuznetsov fired a clip more before Jacob pulled him down. Anger boiled in him, along with the adrenaline.
“What happened to living for your homeland, huh?!”
“This is not my homeland,” he hissed back. “But the people down there are my family. They are your family!”
Kuznetsov jammed another clip in his rifle, fired, and came back down when another bullet tore off frozen wood.
“You are my family, Jacob,” he said with surprising calm. “Go live for your family, live for Julia. Now go! Go!”
Kuznetsov shoved Jacob backwards. Jacob tumbled away, and without looking back, staggered to his feet as he felt bullets rain through the freeze-dried air. He ran like hell towards the crossroads to Charleston, the gunfire and howls of lunatics following behind him.
On his way back down, he did indeed see Peterson and his men running in the opposite direction towards his foreign partner.
But he never did learn what happened to Kuznetsov.
When the nuclear explosion rocked the dam fifteen minutes into his lung-burned sprint, he knew he was too late. He could only watch as the entirety of Summersville Lake fell upon the festive and unsuspecting city.
He never saw Julia again.
Upon his knees, the weight of the world crashed upon him.
And upon the flooded city of Charleston, gentle wisps of snow fell from the darkened sky.
Valiant Information and Inventory Management System (V.I.M.S.) now recording.
September 23rd, 2077, approximate time, 0235 hours EST.
Log created by: Technician J. Peters.
Storage Room B2. Access code: 0 1 0 2 8 8.
Storage B2 Inventory List: three-hundred-seventeen-point-one-five units of recycled water, sixty-five-point-seven-six units of nutrient processor cartridges, seventeen relaxation modules.
Water rerouted to mess hall. Balanced water storage from storage rooms A3 and C5 to maintain precise outer ring rotation. Twelve nutrient processor cartridges to refill Alpha and Epsilon processors checked out. Three relaxation modules checked out.
Inventory List: Hermes Extra-Communications Transmission and Reception (H.E.C.T.O.R.) set to one-forty-five-point-eight-megahurtz.
Actions Performed: Transmissions sent to U-S-S-A Bloomfield Mission Command, recorded on October 23, 2077 at approximate time, 1812 hours EST.
Message transcripts as follows: “Mission control, this is Commander Michaels, please respond on wavelength one-forty-four-point-four-nine. Partial message received but we were unable to hear through the interference. Control, please repeat message.”
Next message transcription, recorded on October 24, 2077 at approximate time, 0445 hours EST.
“Mission control, this is Commander Michaels, please respond. God, please respond. I’d ask if this is some kind of sick joke, but McClellen and Peters thought they saw lights flashing over the eastern coast yesterday. There’s nothing strong enough to make flashes like that except-
Control, please respond. Setting emergency signal on repeat, will continue to contact.”
Next message transcription, recorded on October 28th 2077, approximate time, 0814 hours EST.
“Mission control, this is Commander Michaels. If you’re hearing this, everyone is becoming quite scared up here. McClellan began to panic yesterday trying to intercept emergency signals, and afterwards spent most of the day pacing on the outer ring trying to keep her mind off of things. Is the resupply mission still scheduled for November 23rd? Repeat, is the resupply scheduled? We really need to hear from you, Control.”
Next message transcription, recorded on November 12th 2077, approximate time, 1238 hours EST.
“Mission control, please tell us you’re listening. We began rationing water on November 5th, and rationing nutrient cartridges on November 10th. Richardson, Philips, Beuren, Jensen and I are staying focused and positive, but Peters is going to run out of antipsychotics in less than two weeks. Control, if you’re still there, we need some kind of confirmation. McClellen confined herself in her quarters two days ago, and no amount of knocking is making her come out. Not even a crowbar worked to force the door. She didn’t change her access code, so she must have shorted it out. I don’t think she has food or water in there. We need good news up here, or the situation is only going to get worse.”
Next message transcription, recorded on December 2nd 2077, approximate time, 1126 hours EST.
“Mission control, this is- God, if you don’t know who I am by now, there’s no point.
America. She can’t be gone. We couldn’t see any lights down there as we passed over. We hadn’t even noticed it before because no one wanted to check.
McClellen is gone. She never came out. Even if she took water in with her, I don’t think she lasted three and a half weeks sealed in there.
Peters is starting to lose it. I knew he joined this crew because of his biological expertise, but he didn’t tell anyone how bad he could get without meds. Philips tried synthesizing something for him, but we just don’t have the chemicals onboard, and we don’t dare make the situation worse with makeshift prescriptions.
Richardson has stopped working and devoted himself to prayer, and Jensen has followed him. Beuren and I are starting to question why we should continue our scientific work. ‘It’s better than diving into the relaxation modules or taking sedatives until the end comes,’ I told him. I don’t think that lifted our spirits much.”
December 24th 2077, approximate time, 1843 hours EST.
Log created by: Technician J. Peters.
Airlock C6. Access code: 1 1 1 0 1 5.
Inventory List: Two pressurized E-V-A suits, four E-V-A. oxygen tanks, C6 pressurized oxygen reserves at 35 percent.
Actions performed: One E-V-A suit and four E-V-A oxygen tanks checked out.
Actions performed: Access code reset. New password: 111418.
Inner doors sealed.
Outer doors opened.
C6 Oxygen reserves at zero percent.
End of log.
Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.
Next message transcription, recorded on December 25th 2077, approximate time, 0119 EST.
“Peters spaced himself. And he even changed the door code to lock us out.
He’s got ten hours of O2 at best. And worse, I can’t let anyone go out there through another door to try to bring him back. We’ll probably lose whoever goes after him. Two hours ago Peters started acting violent, and near stabbed Beuren with a scalpel. He even got a flying start at him from C corridor. How Beuren avoided it in zero-G, I’m not sure. He was just lucky Jensen and I were in the room at the same time. Four grown men flailing weightless. Can you imagine?
We’re like rats on a sinking ship. We confined him to Storage Room C4, but he obviously found a way out. Then he took the long walk.
Merry fucking Christmas.
Philips used a few of our junk parts and replicated a science experiment that he’d seen back in his graduate days. Rock candy crystals grown in space. Something so simple to lift the mood, and then this happened. I wouldn’t have considered it a month ago, but I think I’m spending this Christmas… and maybe a few days after… with med-X from the med bay and a few packets of sherry from the relaxation modules. It’s not like I can get drunk with this watered-down garbage. But it’s something. Thank God the alcohol rules were changed last year. Sedatives and sherry, coming right up.”
February 4th, 2077, approximate time, 0312 hours EST.
Control Room V.I.M.S. alert.
Log confirmed by: Technician A. Jensen.
Inventory Shortage: Station propellant reserves at two-percent.
Please resupply immediately. Failure will result in station orbit destabilization.
Repeat, please resupply immediately. Failure will result in station orbit destabilization.
Alert confirmed by: Technician A. Jensen and Commander T. Michaels.
End of log.
H.E.C.T.O.R. incoming transmission to Communications Access Hub A1.
Warning: incorrect access code. Overwritten. Received on all functional broadband frequencies.
Actions performed: Query all U-S-S-A satellites to pinpoint source of transmission.
Action results: 35 U-S-S-A satellites disconnected from network. Remaining 14 satellites performed shortwave broadcast scan on February 15th, 2078 at 0563 hours EST.
Source of transmission: unknown.
End of log.
Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.
Next message transcription, recorded on March 15th 2078, approximate time, 0212 hours EST.
“Well, that’s it, then. According to estimates, we’ve got seventy-two hours before the station starts feeling the burn. Who knows what made that last transmission. Hell, it could have been aliens for all the good it did us. I suppose it’s a small mercy that the oxygen and the water didn’t run out before the propellant did. Barely. We tried venting the oxygen reserves through the stabilizers, but it only bought us a couple more days, maybe a week. Beyond that, we would have suffocated instead of burned. I don’t know which I would have preferred. I asked the crew if they wanted to be sedated before everything happened. Jensen and Philips agreed, and so did I.
Richardson said the last thing he wanted to do was pray to God with a clear mind, and I have no problem with that. Beuren’s been inside Airlock C7 for a few hours, but I haven’t heard any alerts. Maybe he’s contemplating suicide.
None of us are as strong as Richardson. I know the only reason I was chosen as commander for the last nine months instead of him was because of my flight record. But it’s not like I’m dogfighting pinkos up here. I know this record might not survive re-entry, but it feels like I’m accomplishing one last thing before I’m gone. Hell, I don’t even have a family to say goodbye to. No wife, no kids… I poured everything into my career, and look where I ended up. I guess I’m glad I didn’t have a family for them to die in a world like this.
All right. Last words, I guess. For Rachel McClellen, Jake Peters, Rob Philips, Lucius Richardson, David Beuren, Aaron Jensen, and Tyson Michaels, this is the last transmission from the crew of the U-S-S-A Valiant Space Station. If anyone is alive down there and listens to this, know that we remained devoted to God and our country. Whenever and wherever you are, keep the spirit of freedom alive. That’s all we can ask.”
I remember the moment so clearly in my head. Unlike every other member of my family in the room (lazily watching The Mummy on the big screen television), I was trembling. I examined the chessboard with the intensity of grandmaster, but I knew I was missing something. Like a computer programmer trying to jam faulty code into a compiler, I couldn’t comprehend the complexity of what I was looking at. My grandpa’s queen sat hawk-like in the upper corner of the board; she simultaneously watched over her king and poised herself to execute mine diagonally a good seven squares away.
My precious travels to Idaho typically went this way; relaxation, yes, but also blind panic. I’m still unsure if my grandpa held any prestigious awards for his chess-playing capabilities, but one thing was certain: no grandchild (or child, for that matter) had ever beaten him fair and square. In fact, it was well-known in the household that whoever managed to beat him would win fifty bucks, right on the spot. I wasn’t the only one trying. I sat in direct competition with my cousins, some my age, some older, some younger. I didn’t immediately worry about being overtaken by my younger cousins, as grandpa was just pleased as punch to teach them the basics. No, I only worried about one, my main rival: my cousin Kyle. Sure, everyone would get the fifty-dollar grand prize if (when) we beat him. But there was more than a little bit of prestige on the line for reaching that monumental moment first.
To quote the Modern Bard, my palms were sweaty, my knees weak, and my arms heavy. In my panic, I didn’t even notice that no one else was paying any attention … not even Grandpa. It only occurred to me later that The Mummy would be instrumental in the final outcome.
I had to get rid of that blasted queen. I only had two turns, maybe three before he pincered me between his corner rook, his bishop, and Her Majesty. My queen had long since been excommunicated by that holy bishop, and all I had was a knight, a rook, and an off-color bishop of my own. Meanwhile, my bishop must have been Protestant, as he wasn’t in the right alignment to threaten the royal couple. My knight secured a single square beside the enemy king, but as any chess player knows, there’s only so much a knight can do on its own.
And then I saw it. I didn’t need to take down the queen at all. Two turns. I could do it in two turns.
“Check,” I said, moving my knight into position. Grandpa looked down at the board, examining his queen and king. I’d made this move before, but his queen hadn’t been in her position before. He moved his king sideways and returned to watch the movie.
My eye twitched. His queen couldn’t dive out of the way. My knight didn’t need to move. Neither did my bishop; it blocked the remaining escape route. And more importantly, it provided cover for my assassin: my last rook.
The entire room snapped to attention. My grandpa glared down at the board.
I won fifty dollars that day. And The Mummy became my favorite movie.