2290: New Vegas
It was nighttime here in Vegas. Anywhere else in the wasteland, the U.S, possibly the hemisphere, you could see the stars. Not here. Here the light pollution was so strong even the moon had a hard time being seen. Vegas a shining beacon, here to guide you home, no matter who you were. It was Dean’s home. Most nights, Vegas was comfortable. Safe. But not tonight.
There was someone following him. On his way back from the Atomic Wrangler, where he’d had his latest gig, he’d noticed he’d picked up a tail. That in itself wasn’t unusual. Freeside was full of lowlifes who jumped anyone showing the slightest amount of wealth. And it wasn’t unusual for Dean himself to pick up tails. Casinos he visited had a penchant for being robbed on the same night and the regular sent people after him to see if he was carrying the cash. He never was.
This tail was different. He was conspicuous, for one. A massive beast of a man, not in height, but in musculature and weight. He wore a heavy duster, as to conceal his overbearing figure, and had long, greasy hair.
Sometimes Dean glanced back and he had vanished. Most times, he was there as if he had always been. Head bowed, hands in pockets.
Dean took several obscure routes towards his destination, trying to lose him. The man clung steadfastly.
In the older days Dean could’ve gotten the Kings to help him, but ever since the Courier had wiped out their leadership they had been a little less generous in their help towards anyone not strictly from Freeside.
He made it to the North gate into the Strip and was greeted by the Securitron gate guard.
“Please submit for a credit check.” The Securitron demanded, rolling up on its single wheel.
“I don’t want to get into the Strip,” Dean said, causing the Securitron to pause. “I have an… issue. I’m being followed.”
“Please identify your assailant.” The Securitron instructed.
Dean glanced back to the poorly lit streets of Freeside. Flickering street lamps and trash can fire cast an otherworldly glow over the slums. No one was in sight.
“I’m sure he’ll be around in a moment,” Dean promised. “But to be safe, could I be escorted to my destination?”
“I am not permitted to leave my post at the gate.” The Securitron stated.
“Fine then. But let it be known I’m taking this up with your boss. He’s a friend of mine.”
“Step back from the gate or please submit for a credit check.”
“Useless machine.” Dean sneered. He broke off from the gate, trying to cut an alternate route towards his destination. He had to meet with the rest of the crew in a Freeside high rise, near the East gate, to split the score from their most recent job. He couldn’t do that while he had a tail, but he had a feeling he’d finally lost him.
No sooner had Dean thought that had his shadow reappear. Thirty meters back. Still there.
Alright then, friend. Dean took a sudden left turn down an alleyway, discretely drawing his pistol as he did so. Halfway down the alley, he whirled around
“Teach you to try and pull one on me!” Dean shouted as he opened fire.
No one was there. The gunshots rang hollowly in the empty alley.
The fire escape above him shook and Dean lifted his gun in that direction as a figure dropped from it and landed on him. Dean cried out as he was thrown flat, the pistol knocked from his hand and cracked his head on the pavement. Dean groaned, trying to orient himself. Someone big and heavy had a knee rested on his chest, and everything hurt.
“Almost got me.” The man conceded, pulling out a linoleum knife—a straight-bladed weapon with a wicked hook at the end. “Almost.”
Dean groaned again, finding it hard to get his thoughts straight, much less put them into words. But then man tore open Dean’s shirt and started to cut and Dean found he could scream well enough.
Josey Wales had had a long day. A different kind of long day than the one he was used to, but long all the same.
Up early to oversee today’s operations at the Lucky 38 casino. It had opened for business in the wake of Josey’s victory at Hoover Dam and was already the most popular establishment on the Strip. Yes-Man was the one who ran the day to day of the Casino. He had hired the dealers, wait staff, and floor managers and dealt with any number of menial complications that arose when one ran a casino. He only turned to Josey when an issue came up that required Josey’s direct involvement, like an important guest having issues with the casino.
Michael Angelo was on the ground floor, drunk out of his mind, arguing with a Securitron. It was starting to draw attention from the other patrons, disrupting business.
“Drunk and disorderly content is not permitted.” The Securitron informed him in a flat monotone. “Please, exit the building.”
Michael mumbled something unintelligible and attempted, failingly, to hit the machine. The Securitron opened one of its claws to seize Michael and probably drag him from the Casino. Michael Angelo, the artistic name for Sheldon Weintraub, was one of the most high profile people on the Strip. A commercial artist, he made all the signs and advertisements that the Families used to show off their attractions. Obviously, it would be bad if he was treated like a local drunkard.
“I ‘ave it from here.” Josey interrupted, approaching from the elevator. The Securitron immediately rolled away.
“Sheldon.” Josey began, taking him by the arm and leading him away. Sheldon struggled feebly, but let himself be dragged away. “What’re you doing?”
“They tried to keep me from the tables.” Sheldon slurred, spitting frequently. He lifted his arms in a dramatic gesture, an expression of exaggerated anger spreading out onto his face. “Don’t they know I can still play drunk?”
“I know. But it’s only twelve in the afternoon.” Josey pointed out.
“Not my fault people don’t know when to start partying.”
“Everything alright at home?” Josey asked. They headed out through the front doors, and Josey lowered Sheldon to sit down on the steps. “How’s your sister?”
“Still hates you,” Sheldon mumbled. Josey had figured as much.
“Yeah…” Sheldon sighed. “Just… one of those days, you know?” Josey knew. He frequently had days like that himself.
“Sheldon,” Josey said, sitting down next to him. “I ain’t much good at heart-to-hearts. But I’ll tell you this: you’re tough. Not many people can handle what you gone through and turn their life around like you did. You’re the biggest name on the Strip.”
Josey shrugged. “Sure.” He didn’t pronounce the word all the way. It sounded more like “soar” or “shore.”
“He’s don’t count.”
“He’s got a name.”
Josey rolled his eyes. “Let’s get you home, alright?”
Josey’s next hurdle of the day was dealing with the NCR. Following the Second Battle, the NCR as a military had been completely forced out of the Mojave. Camp McCarran had been converted into a research station for the NCR’s Office of Science and Industry and was home to a budding settlement. Forlorn Hope was abandoned. As was Camp Golf. The nearest source of NCR military might was the Mojave Outpost.
But the NCR still had a large presence in the Mojave Wasteland. Many of the Mojave’s citizens were California or originated from there. The NCR sharecroppers lived much as they had and uninterrupted aside from a changing of the guard. As such, the Josey would meet with Ambassador Crocker regularly, to make sure Vegas’ borders were respected and the NCR’s citizens treated fairly.
Josey didn’t change for his meeting with Crocker. Upon entering the embassy, the receptionist didn’t immediately notice him, so Josey had to get her attention.
“Ma’am.” He beckoned, rapping his knuckles on her desk. When she looked up Josey could tell the instant she recognized him because she plastered her best smile onto her face.
“Mr. Wales!” She declared, cheerily. “Head right through the door to my right, Ambassador Crocker is through there.”
“I know,” Josey smirked, given he’d been coming here at least once a month for the past nine years and they both knew it. He said no more on it though. It was NCR politics, likely a subtle snub to make Josey feel unimportant. Or, at least, less important than he was.
Josey headed down the corridor, into Crocker’s office. It was comfortable, as was to be expected of someone in Crocker’s position. Crocker sat behind his desk, typing away at his terminal. Josey wondered if he was actually doing anything meaningful or just wanted to seem busy. Their appointment time never changed, Crocker had known he was coming.
Crocker looked up as Josey entered. They immediately engaged in their usual duel.
“Jose.” Crocker greeted him.
“Dennis.” The Courier sat down across from him and did what he always did. He pointed the portrait of Aaron Kimball hanging behind Crocker’s head. “I saved his life, you know.”
“So you keep reminding me.”
Josey lounged in his seat, dust unfurled, clothing untucked, looking like he was fresh off the road. Crocker sat upright, clothing washed, pressed, and prime. Josey talked slow and heavy with a long, easy drawl that rolled off his tongue. Crocker’s speech was a chopped and quick, always racing to get the next word out. They didn’t fit each other in the same was the NCR and Vegas didn’t.
“Any new developments you want to apprise me about?” Crocker asked.
Josey twisted his mouth and looked away thoughtfully, as if he wasn’t certain. “Nothin’ that comes to mind…”
Crocker rested his elbows on his desk, pushing his terminal aside, and folded his fingers together. “How much longer is this going to last, Josey?” He asked, a rare breaking of the usual form. But there were these days too.
“Independent Vegas. You. This world you’ve created and forced us all to live in.”
“I didn’t do this.” Josey said, folding one leg over the other. “You did. Vegas never wanted anything to do with you. This place never would’ve accepted NCR law.” He left that word unfinished too, slurring it so it sounded more like ‘la.’ “I did everybody a favor. Saved you from your own stupidity. Saved Vegas from unnecessary burdens.”
“Vegas will eventually need to pick a side, one way or another. If not us, then the Legion. And with the way you left things over there… you would be better off choosing us.”
Josey grimaced. “One of these days I wanna get ahold of the moron who said it was a good idea for everyone to fly the same got-damn flag.” Josey sat up and leaned in towards Crocker. “You know what’ll happen if I see the NCR banners coming over the Spring Mountains? First, I’m gonna send you to join General Oliver off the side of Hoover Dam. And then we’re gonna see how the NCR likes getting the same treatment the Legion got.”
He pointed to the portrait behind Crocker’s head. “You think he’s any safer than Caesar was?”
“I know you didn’t just threaten the President of the New California Republic.” Crocker said, a dangerous edge to his voice.
“No threat, Dennis.” Josey smiled. It was not a pretty smile. “A promise.”
“I think this meeting is finished.” Crocker said, standing up. “You may leave now.”
“We’re about outta time anyway.” Josey agreed, slow to rise. “See you in a few weeks. Dennis.” They didn't shake hands. He nodded once in the ambassador’s direction and then left.
Josey had to keep a firm hand with the NCR. They were still plenty powerful, no matter how he postured to Crocker, and they would only continue to try and expand into Nevada. It was right between them and the rest of the world. If Vegas wanted to remain independent, the NCR had to understand that Josey would go to any length to keep it that way.
The NCR military police didn’t hide their distaste for him on his way out, as multiple people didn’t hold the door open for him and he had to the final gate aside himself.
On his way back down the Strip, he saw Cass running towards him.
“Blondie.” She greeted him, slightly out of breath, coming short. Josey and she dressed in much the same way, talked similarly, preferred the same kinds of weapons. Many people joked that they were very much reflections of one another, except that she was attractive where he wasn’t. Josey couldn’t disagree with any of it.
“Cass.” Josey replied. “What’s the issue?”
“You’re gonna want to see for yourself.” She said, pursing her lips.
Josey crouched over Dean’s corpse. He would’ve said it looked like an animal had got to it, only animals couldn’t spell. The body’s clothes were ripped apart, its chest carved up, and blood was smeared across most of it. The jaw was twisted at an abnormal angle. The eyes were wide, alight with pre-mortem pain.
“How long’s he been lying here?” Josey asked.
“Since last night.” Arcade said. “Best I could tell, he’s been dead for about eleven hours.” They were all here: Arcade, Boone, Cass, Raul. Only Lily was missing. And Veronica, but then she’d been missing a long time.
Josey bit the inside of his lip, clenched a fist until the knuckles were white.
“Goddamnit.” He murmured. “All that. For him to die like this.”
“I’m sorry, Jose.” Cass said softly, setting a hand on his shoulder. They were all walking on eggshells around him, like he would snap at any minute. He guessed it was rare they saw him like this.
“Ah, it’s alright.” He said, standing up. “A shame, is all.” He shook his head and breathed one heavy sigh. Time to get to work.
“How’d he die?”
“First my eye was drawn to the wounds on his chest.” Arcade said from behind, joining Josey at the body’s side. “But then I noticed the angle of his jaw.” Arcade knelt down, and held his hand out. “Craig, your knife.” Boone handed him his KABAR. Arcade stuck the blade inside Dean’s mouth, and pressed the flat of it down on Dean’s tongue.
“Oh Jesus, Arcade, c’mon.” Cass complained, holding the back of her hand to her mouth and trying to look away as much as possible.
“Wait.” Arcade insisted. Gently but firmly, he wedged the body’s jaw open, so that Josey could see the back of its throat. He immediately noticed something wrong.
“His tongue.” Arcade confirmed. “Whoever did this ripped it out and shoved it down the back of his throat.”
“Ripped it out?” Josey repeated.
Arcade nodded. “With their hands. A similar practice was used for heretics in older times. Very medieval.”
“Oh dios mio,” Raul groaned. “I’ve seen a lot of messed up things, boss, but this…”
“You think it was Fiends?” Cass wondered.
“Fiends don’t come into Freeside.” Boone said.
A Fiend wasn’t capable of killing someone like Dean Domino, who survived for the last two centuries in a city where the very air was poison and all the inhabitants were walking corpses. Whoever had done this had been capable. Josey was certain.
“Did anyone see anything?” Josey asked.
“No. But Dean encountered a Securitron that night and told it he was being followed by someone.” Arcade said.
“What’d it do?”
Arcade paused for a moment. “It gave him a response the equivalent of ‘tell it to someone who cares.’”
Josey was quiet for a long moment, staring off down the alley, before he returned his attention to Arcade.
“Tell Yes-Man I want that Securitron scrapped, and the curiosity level of all Securitron’s raised by ten percent.”
Arcade nodded. Normally, he wouldn’t have let Josey give him orders. Today was an exception and they both knew it. “And then?” Arcade asked.
“And then we’re all going to meet back at the Lucky 38. We gotta figure something out.” He looked down at Dean’s corpse again.
It was bloody, ruined, but three words had been carved into the ghoul’s chest clearly enough:
I AM SHRIKE
“Who, or what, is Shrike?”
Shrike placed her hand flat on the concrete. There was the impression of a handprint there, from how many centuries ago. Whenever they'd laid this slab, she supposed. She was in North Vegas Square. Once an impressive portion of the city, once upon a time, lifetimes ago. Now rubble strew streets and collapsed buildings surrounded her.
Did people wonder then the legacy they'd leave the world? Had they known everything about them would be erased-- their lives, their families, their histories. Everything except things like this handprint. However fantastical an idea. To do something so careless, leave a blemish in the side of the road, and eventually, it would become the last thing that marked you had ever existed? They must've not, otherwise, Shrike thought she'd be seeing a lot more handprints. People were always obsessed with legacy.
Three shadows fell over Shrike as she crouched there, bent over the pavement, but she didn't turn around.
"D-don't wanna hurt you lady." Shrike glanced over her shoulder. It was a teenage girl, skinny as a twig, carrying a bat. Red, infected needle marks marred her arms. Shrike looked over her other shoulder. Two boys, both around the girls' age, one older, one younger. One carried a shotgun that didn't look like it would fire, the other a golf club.
"Give us whatever you're carrying." The oldest both instructed. He was tall and wide, much bigger than Shrike, but he also had a malnourished leanness to him.
Shrike ignored them, turning back to the pavement, tracing a finger through the handprint.
"Did you hear us?" The boy growled, stepping forwards. "I said give us your stuff!"
Such a cruel world they lived in. No, cruel was the wrong word. Mother earth was not malevolent. She was.. uncaring. An absentee parent. And they were her pathetic, insignificant offspring.
Shrike found something about the present situation incredibly amusing, and began to laugh, surprising the three of them.
"We're not joking!" The boy shouted, growing red. He thought she'd been mocking him. He raised his golf club, likely to give her a warning blow. Shrike sighed as she stood, and turned so she could kill them.
"Walk away, brother." The kids jumped. A man had come out of the ruins of a nearby building. He had long, greasy hair. He wore a heavy duster. "If you know what's good for you, you'll walk away."
The teenagers glanced between the man and Shrike and then wasted no time beating it up the street. They ran fast for a bunch of half-starved, drugged out children.
"Thank you." Shrike said as he approached. "But I had it handled."
"Eh, I don't like kids dying." The man shrugged. "You got that look in your eye and I knew they were as good as meat."
"I wasn't going to kill them." Shrike said, somewhat defensively.
The man snorted derisively. "Yeah, you were. This point it's like breathing to you. I know 'cause I been there myself."
Shrike glared at him. He wasn't here to give her advice or suggestions. "Is it done?"
"Yeah, it's done." He sounded somewhat regretful.
"I don't want to hear how you did it."
The man smiled. He was ugly, despite the fitness of his body, with a squashed face and long features. It gave a jarring, stretched quality to his appearance.
"Yes you do."