- "I seen a hand, I seen a vision
It was reaching through the clouds, To risk a dream
A shadow cross the sky
And it crushed into the ground, Just like a beast
The old man's back again
The old man's back again"
- ―Scott Walker, "The Old Man's Back Again"
The howling winds of Killem Field carried far; far enough to whip the dust off the crumbling asphalt streets of Baird, covering the town in a brown-orange haze. On days like this, the few people who made up this feeble township either stayed in their dilapitated homes or in the town's sole place of business, "Callahan's."
Andrew van Krammer found himself in the midst of a welcome but unlikely reunion. The wasteland troubadour had managed to make it to this first hint of civilization west of mythic Four Seasons after a sometimes enchanting, frequently terrifying stay in those haunted ruins. It was in Callahan's that he was reminiscing with the extraordinary character known as The Eldest; or more accurately, getting to know the withered ghoul's latest guardian; the old man himself hadn't actually woken up yet.
The guardian was upset and the cause was plainly known, nursing a bandaged wound as he was. He was a thick, sturdy Hispanic man in his early forties; hiding scars under thick mutton chops and a thicker beard. "Someone is definitely after the old man, and not in a 'kill the ghoul' kind of way. He's a bounty-head, strictly of the wanted alive persuasion. We'd been in Boss Town when he suddenly got it in his head to go back to his old family home, somewhere outside San Angelo. There was no way I was going to take him through the Seasons or try and navigate that war zone on the coast so we came in through the north by way of Witch Falls; the really long route. Between the Falls and here we've been jumped three times. The most recent time I scored this stab wound and the shiner," the burly man said pointing to the swell of greenish brown under his eye.
Andy nodded in concern "I can't imagine who'd be after him, but some of those guys in Boss Town go to and from the Coast. If I were to bet on it, I'd say someone beat you to Texas and mentioned the old man to someone who now wants him for some reason. They'd have known he'd be coming weeks, maybe even months ahead of you two showing up. Anyone else know he wanted to go home?"
The guardian hissed out the side of his mouth and nodded ruefully "You know how he gets when the lights are on, he'll gab to anyone. I'm sure half of Boss Town knew. Anyways, you seem pretty trustworthy and you obviously know the old man from the Big Easy so I'm pretty comfortable with taking you up on your offer to take him the rest of the way."
Big Spring, Texas
The markets of Big Spring radiated outward from the corner of Third and Runnels, where the towering Settles rose; proud and austere over the touts, shop criers, the catcalls of the whores, and the acrid smoke of fat-burning lanterns. The townsfolk made their living on those waiting for the miraculous touch of the Arceneaux Twins, counting their possessions to keep their minds off the occasional train of slaves brought in through the back way in the dead of night.
The inside of the tower was a different world. The din and grime of the wasteland was checked at the door. Fresh-faced attendants in white were ready to take your shoes and guns and provide slippers and light refreshments. They were all smiles, trusting in the ceiling mounted turrets and the discretely placed armed guards to see to their safety. "Welcome to the Settles Hotel and Clinic. Your name please?"
Jackal sat, cross-legged, watching the traveller cough up oily red-brown filth from his rapidly-degrading throat. Liam forced a small act of mercy and rolled the man on his side, spilling a respectable amount of the congealing gore to the green-yellow irradiated grass that covered Toloko's grounds. It'd be a sad sight to watch the man suffocate in his own blood and puke. Liam sighed heavily and shook him to snap him out of his radiation-sickness-induced stupor.
"You know that by cutting yourself on the razor grass out by the flowerbed, you scored some pretty important tendons and then snapped 'em by running from me, don't you?" Jackal finally rasped, getting a head shake in response, "See, this place is irradiated to shit. That's why I'm so healthy and you're not so much. What in Baby Jesus' name made you run in here anyway?"
"The angel," the man spluttered, nodding towards a sign near the door of the plant.
"Oh you moron. That's not a crude angel, dumbass. That's the universal symbol for radioactive material," Jackal sighed, "The reactor cooling towers didn't clue you in at all?"
"What?" came the agonized response.
"Those big concrete things behind the plant. Seriously, you are one stupid motherfucker. What're you here for anyway?" Jackal demanded.
"Bounty ... on a Ghoul," the dying man answered, shaking his head rapidly as Jackal drew his .45 and cocked it, "Not you, not you. The Old One. The word say he lives to the West."
"And what exactly made you head east?" Jackal asked, raising a peeling eyebrow.
"What? No, I went towards the rising sun!" the man retorted.
"Sun rises in the east, jackass," Jackal rumbled in response, "Look, you're gonna die pretty slowly and horribly over the next few hours, this close to Six. So, what I'm gonna do is put you out of your misery. All the bacteria in your gut's dead, so taking you away only means you die from malnourishment in about two weeks' time."
The man's pleas were cut short by the loud crack of a .45 and the click of a semiautomatic action cycling. Jackal sighed and dropped the hammer before holstering the pistol and standing up. He gave a hesitant look towards the reactor cooling tower before glancing west. A bounty on a Ghoul.
"Go on, you want to do it," Jackal thought.
"Do I, really?" Liam thought back in response.
"I'm your damn subconscious. If I say you want to do it, you want to fucking do it. Go find the Old One and see if he's worth cashing in. Or if he's worth getting out of dodge, you never really know with bounties. He could be a good guy and some bad dudes want him dead," Jackal retorted, "Go west, wayward son!"
"This is gonna end in tears and gunfire," Jackal muttered to himself as he returned to gear up and head west, listening to his insane subconscious against all better judgement. A little excitement was in order though; life in the plant was boring, what with all the retards running onto the grounds and getting radiation poisoning.Boss Town, Louisiana
There he was, standing in the back room of some rowdy bar in Boss Town, with a grown man crying in the corner with the contents of his emptied blatter spreading around him. That man was the bartender. "These humans are revolting," Grutt thought. "All cowards and morons and whores." But perhaps he had exaggerated a bit by telling the man he would break all of his fingers if he didn't answer his question. After all, he had only asked for directions.
Grutt sighed deeply and tried to get the man back on his feet, but that proved to be impossible as the bartender had no more strength left in his legs. So he closed the door behind him and stepped outside.. It was evening; trash can fires filled the little corner of Boss Town he was in and people poured in and out of the various little pubs and brothels. Grutt had almost given up for the night when he heard some music nearby. He stepped around the corner and saw there was a casino with large neon signs, inviting him to go in. He wasn't planning on spending his caps there, but he figured someone there might have a decent lay of the land and maybe some information about what he was looking for.
The bouncer, a tall, young man in his 20s with a smug smile on his face, intercepted him before he could make it to the front door.
"I'm sorry, big guy, but I'll have to check you for weapons and explosives. No one gets in before I've checked them," the bouncer said to him, swaying his rifle around as a sign of his superiority.
"I don't like being searched, and that little gun of yours isn't gonna do shit after I break both of your hands," Grutt replied.
"Hey man, it's company policy, so shut up and...,". Before he could finish his sentence, Grutt pulled down the scarf that covered his face, and the man recognized the face of a Super Mutant. Terrified by the sight, the inexperienced lad took a big step back and opened up the door. Before going in, Grutt covered his face again and asked the bouncer one last thing. "Do you know someone who could tell me about the safest way to Dallas?"
"I-i don't know, sir. Umm..maybe...no. Oh! There was this guy called euh...Robins or Robinson or something who came in a few hours ago. A real adventuring type, or so I've heard. He might know a thing or two."
Grutt nodded and set foot inside, where he was greeted by the sound of jazz and spinning slot machines, and the smoke of cigarettes that rose up to the ceiling. Now all he had to do was stay low and find the adventurer.Boss Town, Louisiana
The man sitting at the table wasn't even paying attention to him. He was watching the band playing on the stage, and his eyes were closed as he enjoyed a cigar. Even when Grutt walked over to the table and took a seat directly across the man, there was no reaction. He looked like he was something in his 50s, and Grutt was beginning to doubt that this was the so-called adventurer.
"I"m looking for a man named Robinson. Do you know where I can find this man?" Grutt finally asked him. The man slowly opened one eye and looked at the stranger sitting across the table. He carefully put down his cigar on an ashtray and cleared his throat. "Maybe if you could give me an accurate description of this Robinson, I might know something. But if you can't, I'm afraid I won't be able to help you, my friend," he said as he leaned back in his chair. "Fuck. I think I know where this is going," Grutt thought.
"Actually, I don't have the faintest clue. All I have is the name. But I'm sure that when I'll meet him, I'll be awed by his bravery, intelligence and the fact that he'll be superior to me in almost every way. Oh my, I'm sure I'll even faint when I meet him," After saying that, Grutt felt like he was going to be sick. But his words had achieved their goal; the man was now grinning widely, and Grutt had his full attention. The man stretched out his arm and shaked Grutt's hand. "Alan Robinson, the one and only," He introduced himself. "I'm sorry I made you go through all that, but I'll repay you for the effort. Here, have a cigar. You don't know what I had to go through to get these baby's," He said with a complacent look on his face.
"Yeah, that's all fine and shit, but I need information. Can you show me the fastest and safest way to Dallas?"
Robinson was surprised by the question. "Dallas, eh? That's in Four Seasons, and every sane person avoids that hell-hole as much as they possibly can. But I'm assuming you have a good reason to go there, hmm?"
"I have, I'm looking for ghouls and I heard Dallas is pretty full of 'em," Grutt answered. He noticed that Robinson was now staring at him. Luckily, Grutt didn't care about what the man was thinking.
"Well, you can find ghouls in Boss Town as well, and to be honest; I've never been to Dallas myself," He said, scratching his beard. "But I might know something else that could be usefull for you." Robinson beckoned for Grutt to come closer, and he lowered his voice to almost a whisper. "Not too long ago, there was this ghoul who came into town, pushed around by some dude because he was in a wheelchair. So I went to ask him some questions, and I found out a lot of interesting stuff. You know how a lot of ghouls are really old, like born before the War, right? Well, that's nothing compared to this guy. I mean, this ghoul was ancient with his 300 years. He knew a lot of things about everything pre-War, and he told me the most amazing stories I'd ever heard," He paused for awhile as a waitress walked past their table and he lowered his voice even further, forcing Grutt to bend over so far he could smell the man's breath. "He also said something about bad guys being after him. He mentioned this place called Big Spring, which is way out west, in Texas. He would've probably told me a lot more, but then his caretaker came back and they scrammed it. I don't know about you, but I think it'd be a great loss for the Wasteland if the old chap ended up dead."
Grutt agreed. This ghoul was something unique, and he figured he had nothing to lose by investigating the case. "Guess I'll be going to Big Spring then," he said before getting up from his chair.
Robinson rummaged thorugh his bags for a second and pushed something into Grutt's hands. "Here, you'll need this. It's a map of Texas with most of the old roads on it. Yeah, I know that means shit out in the wasteland, but hey, it's better then nothing, right?"
Grutt thanked the man before heading back to the main floor of the casino. He saw a bottle of scotch standing on one of the tables and grabbed it. He was sure he was going to need it sooner or later during the yourney ahead. After having stepped outside, he made sure the rising sun shined on his back and he quickly left Boss Town behind.
Four Seasons, Texas
Some time after Liam began his westward trek, he found himself in some warped and wrecked suburb of Dallas. He managed to not draw the attention of a circle of Protectrons, songs blazing in harmony through their speakers and arms upraised. He navigated around a days-long wave of radroaches pouring out of one manhole and into a fissure. The ghoul had nearly cleared this curious zone when the sound of multiple rifles cocking served to inform him that he was very likely surrounded. From the doorway of a partially melted building emerged a trio of heavily garbed humanoids. One held a semi-automatic rifle aimed at Liam, while a second was affixing an old, bleached skull to the end of a knotted rope, the third held a rifle in a more casual fashion. With its free hand, the third ghoul started peeling off the scarf, goggles, and balaclava off its head; revealing a hideous, rotted countenance.
"Brothers! Do not shoot! That is one of us, the dead shall know their own!"
Other ghouls who had been in hiding emerged and stopped aiming so readily at Liam. The ghoul that spoke then turned to Liam and addressed him directly "Heed me wandering phantom! These are bad times for the restless dead. The living may exorcise you from this world entirely if you leave these lands, if you step outside the protection of the Majestic Brotherhood."