Two men on horseback rode into the settlement of Stateline. They were alike in some ways, but different in many others.
The first of them was also the older of the two. He was tall, muscled, with unkempt dark brown hair. He had intense, serious features—attractive, but also nuanced in appearance, as if he was angry or dangerous in some way. His eyes were a bright emerald and calm, as if nothing could surprise him. A gauss rifle hung over one shoulder. He wore a heavy coat, the inner right side of which bulged, swollen with the shape of a pistol.
The second man was younger, shorter, and wiry in build. He had long black hair, almost reaching down past his neck. He was youthful looking, with gaunt features, and hazy eyes. Someone who was fresh-faced and would appear so to anyone who looked at him. He was unarmed. The most notable thing about him was that he wore a vault suit with the number 13 on the back. He wore a windbreaker over it.
They did not appear particularly noteworthy. Perhaps the first man’s rifle was something special, but other than that they were the usual fare.
Their horses were the most exciting things about them. The horses were orange, for starters, and taller than any man. Bony protrusions stuck from their shoulders and neck, and a thick mane of hair wrapped its way around their head. The horses were saddled, and their saddle bags were piled high with trophies of all sorts. Broken swords, guns, shattered pieces of seemingly useless technology. A swatch of fabric with a triangle on it was stapled to one of the saddlebags, displayed proudly.
The settlement of Stateline, a shantytown composed of metal shacks and patched up pre-war ruins, lay low in the desert. Before the war it had been little more than a gas station, some diners, and maybe an auto store. It was empty now, residents having gone into their homes, although some watched through sheet-covered cutouts that they called windows. The sheriff, dressed in leathers, wearing a gallon hat with a badge proudly displayed on it, strode out to meet them. Deputies walked at his flanks.
Stateline did not look in the best repair. Scorch marks left over from laser weapons and grenade blasts marred the buildings and ground in places. There was a large splotch of unmapped up blood.
One of the strangers swung down from his horse. He stuck the gauss rifle in a large holster affixed to the horse’s saddle and went to meet the sheriff.
The sheriff opened his mouth to issue an indictment, but the stranger spoke first, offering a smile and a polite, “Morning.”
The sheriff lost his momentum, only able to respond with. “Eh?”
“Said good morning.” The man said. “My name’s Tanner.” He thumbed over his shoulder. “That’s Cable.” The young man waved. “We’re here to solve your mutant problem.”
The sheriff looked over the pair of them, frowning. “How’d you boys hear of that?”
“Word travels. If Nightkin make a habit of raiding your settlement, and any caravans that travel through, people talk about it. They say to stay away.”
“Maybe we like it that way.” The sheriff sniffed.
“Unless you’re hiding acres of farmland and an oasis from me, sheriff, you don’t. You need those caravans to survive.”
The sheriff sneered at Tanner. “What do you want? Money? You boys don’t think I seen your like before? Conmen, trying to swindle us out of what’s ours.”
“You’re wrong.” Tanner said. “A food and a place to sleep would be nice, but cash isn’t something I’m interested in.”
“Yeah right. You’re a bounty hunter. All your kind are interested in is NCR paper. But that’s beside the point.”
“Even if I was willing to part with a cent, there’s no chance you two clowns are taking on three Nightkin.”
Tanner ducked his head and scratched his brow, resisting the urge to lose his cool. Positive inner voice. Good thoughts. Just a man doing his job. Bigoted piece of shit that he is, he’s only doing his job. Tanner didn’t need a drink. He didn’t need a drink. He didn’t need a drink.
“Listen, sheriff.” Tanner said, withdrawing a flask from his coat. “Local politics don’t concern me. Doesn’t matter to me that you got everyone inside their homes, trying to hide how empty this place is. I also didn’t notice that you stopped me from trying to enter the town that you’re trying to chase me off before I have a chance to look around. I’m not some wasteland vigilante, here to even the odds and free the common folk. I do one thing.”
The sheriff leaned forward, drawn in by Tanner’s speech.
“I kill people with super powers.” He took a swig from his flask. The sheriff scoffed at the theatricality of it, but Tanner was unperturbed. “Your mutants. Where are they?”
“Whoever you think you are, you ain’t killing three Nightkin.”
“Then they’ll kill me. Where are they?”
“I don’t want you riling them up. After they’re done with you, they’ll attack my town.”
“Then you’d have warning this time.” Tanner pointed out. “They attack you anyway.”
The sheriff fell silent. “Don’t make me regret this.”
Tanner smiled, not exactly happy, but pleased to have brought someone around to his way of seeing things.
“Go past the town.” The sheriff pointed. “You’ll need to ride for a while. They’re over the first hill you see. Got a big camp setup, piles of garbage all around.”
Tanner nodded. He motioned for Cable to start leading the horses in that direction. He began to turn away, but hesitated. “What’d they want from you in the first place?” Tanner asked. “Food? Captives”
“Nothing. They come into town, break things, hurt people, maybe kill someone. Then they leave.”
Tanner nodded again. He climbed up onto his horse and they rode off at a quick pace.
Night fell. Tanner and Cable came to a halt for the day. They staked the horses’ reins to the ground.
Tanner pulled a small oil stove from one of the saddle bags. When he got about to striking the oil it lit instantly.
Cable sat in front of the stove, bringing the saddle bag that carried their rations. He set a steel pot over the stove’s flame, poured water into it, and began to add food scraps. Dried meats, wilting vegetables, pinches of salt, a ginger root.
Tanner spread out his saddle and leaned against, stretching out on the hardpan of the Nevada desert, and unscrewed his flask.
Insects made pleasant, white noise. The stew began to boil.
“How come we didn’t help them?” Cable asked.
Tanner looked over at him, a quizzical expression on his face. “We are helping them.”
“Not the sheriff. The town. That place is a dump.”
Tanner pursed his lips. “It isn’t our place. What we do, it’s important Cable. These people can’t protect themselves from threats like Nightkin or super mutants. Glowing Ones. Deathclaws. Without us they’d die.” He pulled from the flask.
“We could still do more.”
“We could, but it wouldn’t stop. There’d always be one more thing we had to fix. We’d get bogged down in it. And while we were so busy helping one place we’d neglect another.” He pulled from the flask.
“Doesn’t seem right.”
Tanner laughed. He craned his neck back, resting his head on the top of his saddle, and looked up at the stars. “Talking about right and wrong is delusional and self-indulgent. If you had traveled and seen what I have… you’d appreciate the truth of that.”
Cable frowned, insulted. He had traveled. He’d seen a lot of what Tanner had. They’d been on the road together for the last three years now. When was Tanner going to start treating him like an equal?
“Hades believed there was never too much right. That if he could go to any length to fix something, it was a length worth going to. In his eyes, there were no limits. A law was there to be broken. Look where it got him, Cable. Look what it cost him, what it cost me. What it cost so many people. It’s reckless, thinking you and you alone have the capability to fix everything. It’s reckless and arrogant. There’s no one with that kind of power.”
“You’re the one who’s wrong now.”
“I am.” Tanner replied, flatly.
“Yes. No one can do what you can do, boss. Maybe most people, there’s a limit. But not for you.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Why not? You can control it, I’ve seen you. It—“
“Stop!” Tanner shouted. The fire rose, licked the sides of the pot, and the night grew bright. Cable’s mouth snapped shut. They sat there in silence. Darkness settled back over them. Tanner took another long drink from his flask and ran a hand down his face.
“Do you know,” he began, “how dangerous this talk of yours is? For me?
“You talk of the good I could do. It gets inside my brain. Like maggots eating at my flesh, worming their way toward my core. I decided long ago—for my sanity, for the world itself—that I could not use my powers.”
Cable’s eyes shimmered in the heat rising from the fire. He folded his arms, drawing inward.
“But now here you come. Talking about control, of using my power when necessary. It starts me wondering. I could do it too, couldn’t I? Aren’t I strong? Don’t I have a handle on it? Now I find myself using my powers in little ways.” He gestured to the fire. “Creating excuses. Don’t you think this is what Hades thought? That he could control it? That he was strong enough?”
“But you’re good.” Cable said in a small voice. “Truly good. Hades was a… a bad guy.”
“Ha!” Tanner chuckled, grinning drunkenly at the sky. “I want to know what effete, sniveling coward coined the term ‘bad guy.’ Probably someone who relied on stronger men for his safety. You know what bad means to me? It means you’re strong. You endure when others listen to the pussified voice inside, lay down and die.” Tanner slurred. “What would we be without bad men? We’d have no job, for starters. You’re only as good as the man across from you, it’s what builds you. So we’ve smoked a few low-lifes. And what-- now we’re supposed to be special? I’m no different than you or anyone else, Cable. Just another meatbag with an expiration date. The hubris of it... to call Hades 'bad.' There’ll be a time when you’ll wish there was more bad in us than good, because good… good lets you down in the end.”
Cable glared at Tanner. “You don’t believe that.”
Tanner looked over. “Don’t I?”
Cable stared back at him. Tanner turned away and closed his eyes, flask hanging limply from his hand.
The stew had burned. Cable dumped it out onto the ground and went to sleep himself.
The desert sun hung high above them. It was hot. Tanner woke up feeling refreshed, at his strongest. There was still plenty of light during the night, but he was at his best during the day.
They staked the horses’ reins to the ground again and belly crawled up onto the hilltop, three mutants gathered below them. They were milling about, messing with different pieces of garbage. They seemed to almost have a kind of laboratory set up, or maybe a workshop. Tanner didn’t know what Nightkin made science projects out of, but it couldn’t be good.
“Take this.” Tanner said, removing Almighty from his shoulder and handing it from Cable. “Cover me. I’m going to go down there and talk to them.”
“Talk to them?”
“Of course.” Tanner smirked. “Violence as a last resort. The first step in conflict resolution is using your words.”
“But it never works.”
“And that won’t ever stop me from trying.” Tanner crawled back down the hill, circled around, and approached the camp from a different direction, as to not give away Cable's position.
He walked up and stood next to the garbage pile at the furthest edge of the camp. The mutants did not notice him immediately.
One of them paused in their work. He was piling scraps of metal on a table and threw back his head, sniffing the air. “Human,” it growled in deep, thick voice, like that of a chronic smoker.
The Nightkin, all three of them, turned towards Tanner, who stood at the edge of the camp.
He lifted a hand. “Hi, how are ya?”
“Human.” Another growled, the largest of the three. A leather contraption wrapped around his head, pulling his lips back from his mouth in a permanent grimace. He was missing an eye—a bullet sat in its place, nestled in the mutant’s flesh. Naked from the waist up, the lower half of his body was covered in a pair of XXXL jeans that had been extremely stretched out. He came stomping towards Tanner, grabbing a signpost wrapped in barbed wire from the ground.
Tanner did not move. He looked up as the mutant towered over him.
“Why have you come?” The mutant growled, saliva dribbling from his lips.
“I wanted to talk.” Tanner said. “See if I could get you to stop attacking Stateline.”
“I am unfamiliar with this name.”
“The settlement in that direction.” He pointed.
The mutant bent to inspect Tanner. Its head was almost three times the size of Tanner’s. He was absolutely dwarfed by it. “Are you one of them?”
“No. I’m sort of the… mutant liaison.” Tanner said. “Why are you attacking them?”
The mutant looked at Tanner hard with its single eye, tightening its knuckles around the signpost. He could tell it really wanted to kill him, but humans rarely reacted to mutants the way Tanner was. They either reacted in fear or disgust, and ran or attacked. It was irregular for someone to approach and converse like this was something normal.
“Did not mean to. They were loud.” The Nightkin said. “Make the voices angry.” He slapped the side of his head with annoyance.
Tanner nodded. It was common for Nightkin to suffer from schizophrenia. The result of prolonged Stealth Boy usage. There was a whole faction of the Brotherhood that had split off over how Stealth Boys should be used. They’d turned into a murderous assassin cult. Nightkin society was almost entirely based around the use of Stealth Boys. It explained why they were so frequently erratic or violent.
“Alright.” Tanner said. “What are you doing here?” He walked past the Nightkin, towards one of the workbenches. The creature hovered over his shoulder, ready to attack in a moment’s notice.
“Trying to make Stealth Boys.” The mutant rumbled. “There are none out here, and our supply is broken or dead.”
Tanner stopped in front of the workbenches, stroking his chin. The scrap electronics on it did not look promising. A mock stealth boy casing, made of bent, rusted metal, lay off to one side. “If you got Stealth Boys, you’d stop attacking the town?” Tanner asked. He turned around to look up at the Nightkin. The other two were watching him now with empty gazes. Tanner knew that they could turn violent in an instance.
“Yes.” The Nightkin said, finally. “Yes we would.”
“Will you follow me to Stateline?” Tanner asked. “If I promised you I could get you Stealth Boys there?”
The Nightkin watched him, wary of his intentions. “Not a trap?”
“No.” Tanner shook his head.
“Then why help? What do you gain, human?”
“Nothing.” Tanner said. “But I know what it’s like to have an unwanted voice in your head. To have your thoughts not be your own. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
The Nightkin stared at him. Then, slowly, set it’s signpost on the ground. “What’s your name, human?”
“I am Curr.” The Nightkin huffed at its companions, motioned for them to join it. “We will follow you.”
When Tanner and Cable rode into Stateline, followed by the three Nightkin, the sheriff and his deputies once again strode out to meet them. The pretense of good nature was gone, however, as they approached with weapons drawn, each of them carrying a laser rifle. Tanner once again holstered the Almighty in the saddle and hopped down from the horse.
He rested his hands on the lapels of his coat as he went to meet the sheriff.
“Boy, what the hell is going on?” He looked past Tanner. “Are you working with the mutants? Did you lead ‘em back here? What kind of sick game is this?”
“We came to an agreement.” Tanner said. “They want Stealth Boys. If you can give them some, they’ll stop attacking the town.”
“We ain’t giving those blue bastards nothing.” The sheriff growled. “And we ain’t giving you shit either. Get you ass, and their’s, out of here before me and my boys here lose it.”
Tanner ran his eyes over Stateline again. “Sheriff, I went out to the mutant’s camp. There wasn’t a firearm in sight. No explosives. They’re armed with cudgels.”
“So why’s it look like a bomb went off in your town?” Tanner asked. “The longer I spend out here I’m starting to get a different picture. That three Nightkin walked into Stateline and you did everything in your power to kill them.”
The sheriff’s hand shot out and he grabbed the front of Tanner’s coat, pulling the younger man in close. “Listen here, boy. You get out of my town right now. Right now. Or I ain’t liable for what’ll happen.”
“Normally, I’d do what you say, sheriff.” Tanner said. “But the kid was right.”
The sheriff opened his mouth to ask what that meant, and Tanner headbutted him right in the teeth. The sheriff fell to the ground on his back, holding his bloodied lips, and the two deputies raised their laser rifles at Tanner.
“Hey!” Cable barked from horseback. Tanner’s gauss rifle, The Almighty, roared to life in Cable’s hands, coils vibrating, and he pointed it at the deputies. The three Nightkin surged forward. “Why don’t you two go take a walk?” Cable suggested. The deputies exchanged looks between themselves, and then one embarrassed one with the sheriff. He looked up at them from the ground, tears streaming from his eyes, one hand pressed to his face.
“Sorry, Hogan.” One of the deputies said, before they both quickly made themselves scarce.
“Boys!” Sheriff Hogan cried after them, shocked at having been abandoned.
The sheriff slowly turned his head back to Tanner, who smiled wide at him.
“Gave you plenty of opportunities.” Tanner said, bending down and plucking the sheriff’s hat off Hogan’s head. “But you had to be a ‘good ole boy’ and stay stuck in your ways.” Tanner twirled the hat by its brim between his fingers.
“What do you want?” Hogan lisped around broken teeth.
“What don’t you people get?” Tanner said, exasperated. “I don’t want anything. I’m here to help. That’s all.”
“You son of a bitch.” Hogan sneered up at him. “Lying cocksucker. Said you were gonna kill the mutants. Said you weren’t gonna get involved.”
“I changed my mind.”
“Whatever.” Tanner said, shoving Hogan aside with a boot. “Cable, wait here, watch him. Curr, c’mon.”
They headed into town, the town’s folk appearing at doors and porches to watch the procession.
“They are watching us.” Curr murmured, deep voice reverberating.
“Because they’re not used to you.” Tanner said. “They’re afraid. Last time you were here there was a fight.”
“An accident.” Curr said. “Only wanted the voices to be quiet.”
“You gotta be more careful now, Curr.” Tanner said. They stopped at the center of the town. Tanner pointed to one of the shops. “See that sign? The store sells old world tech. They’ll sell Stealth Boys inside. Now, you can go in and take them. There’s no one here who could stop you. Or, alternatively, you could come to an arrangement with the owner. I don’t doubt he’d want a group of Nightkin on his payroll. It’s up to you. But your world’s only going to get smaller. You can try to fight that, or…” Tanner tossed the sheriff’s hat at him. The mutant caught it against his chest. “You can be a part of the new one.”
Curr frowned at him. “Why? Why help us?”
“You already asked me that.”
“You gave a bad answer.”
Tanner smiled at him. “I guess because I’m sick of people helping me. Decided it was time to give back.”
Curr’s massive hand settled on Tanner’s shoulder, enclosing it. “You’re a good human.”
Tanner shrugged. “I try.”
Cable and Tanner rode out, Stateline behind them. They rode in companionable silence for a good while, before Tanner broke it.
“You were right, Cable.”
Tanner looked sideways at him. Cable shrugged innocently. “What you said, about doing good." Tanner pressed forward. "There’s more to it than just doing the bare minimum, staying inside our lanes. It was arrogant of me to think we were only good for one thing. Self-indulgent of me to assume we would go too far.”
“I don’t hold it against you, boss.” Cable said. “No matter what you say, you’re good. From what you’ve told me, better than Hades was. And I'd never let you get as bad as he got.”
Tanner felt proud, for some reason. Because he’d impressed Cable? No. Because he’d taught Cable the right things. That Cable understood why they did all this. What the point of it was. It wasn’t to ease their consciences. It was because no one was going to do what they were doing. Either because no one else could or no one else cared. “Thanks, Cable.”
They rode longer.
The air began to hum. There was the sound of blades chopping the air and a Vertibird roared out of the thin, desert clouds, jet engines screaming.
The horse reared up, neighing, and Tanner jerked the reins left and right. “Whoa!”
The Vertibird passed overhead, settled down in the desert forty feet from them, kicking up a dust storm as it landed.
“Stay here, Cable.” Tanner said. “Run at the first sign of this going south.” There was a reason Vertibirds were once a feared sight in the sky. As an Arroyo native, Cable knew this.
Tanner hopped down from his mount. He drew his revolver and held it at his side. He walked towards the Vertibird.
The blades began to wind down, the scream of the engines quieting to a low whine. The door slid open, and a man stepped out. He slicked back black hair. He had a narrow, almost weasel-like face, and beady eyes.
“Tanner Collins?” He called to Tanner, holding the jacket of his clean, black suit closed against the gusting wind.
“Who wants to know?”
“My name is Agent Miller, I’m with the New California Republic's Office of Science and Industry.” A piece of leather came from out of the jacket. It flipped open briefly, revealing a badge and card, then vanished again. “You need to come with me. My people will secure your horses.”
“Can I ask why?” Tanner said, having no intention of going with this man.
“How would you like save America?” Miller asked. “Or your friends? Kayleigh Carruthers, for one.”
The use of that name out here, in Nevada, especially by a man he had never met, nearly floored Tanner.
“What about your wife?” Miller continued. He paused a beat. They locked eyes. “Your son?” All noise and sensation left Tanner. He might’ve nearly fainted.
Tanner stuck the revolver back in his coat. The flask came out instead. He lifted it to his lips, thought better, and instead tossed it to the desert floor. Enough of that.
“Cable!” He shouted over his shoulder. “Get the rifle!”
“What’s up, boss?”
“We’re going to California!”