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Don't worry, this isn't a political post, sit down.

So, I'm almost done with the next chapter. Hooray! And with this, I think I can safely say that the story is finally - FINALLY! - coming to a close. Yes, that elusive goal peeking over the horizon, forever distant and forever out of reach, is actually going to be attained.

I can't give any solid dates for any chapter except the next one, because that's the only one I've done any work on, and I've learned from experience not to commit to a date unless the project is just about finished.

Here's the rough outline of what you can expect:

Chapter 168: In the Line of Fire
Chapter 169: The Calm
Chapter 170: The Storm
Chapter 171: Welcome to Hell
Chapter 172: Cashing Out
Epilogue
Afterword

After all this time, I'm finally on the verge of actually finishing a project for once in my miserable life. Which means I can finally put this damn thing to bed, and actually move on to something else.

I am just as surprised as all of you.

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Sheason
Brady Shea
Artist | Hobbyist | Literature
United States

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Chapter 168: In the Line of Fire



~*~~***~~*~

Good morning, chiiiiiiiiiildren! Time to wake up with Galaxy News Radio! We’ve got a great show for you today, jam packed with all the music and news your hearts can handle! Right now, though, I’ve got something I know none of you have ever heard before. It’s something called “Land of Confusion,” coming to us straight from those masters of confusing us with song lyrics themselves: Genesis! Only on G! N! R!

~*~~***~~*~

“Good morning, sir,” a digital voice cut through the foggy haze of sleep. My eyes snapped open, but it took several seconds for the rest of my body to follow.

“N-huh? Wha?” Cass muttered blearily from somewhere to my side. I felt her hand clumsily paw at the sound, smacking me several times across the chest. “Fuggoff... f’ve m’re minuh...” Her words trailed off, she grabbed hold of me, pulled me close, and proceeded to snore into my neck.

“G’mornin’ Jeeves,” I eventually managed to grunt out with a cough. “What’s goin’ on, man?” I tried to lift my Pip Boy, but I was still pretty sluggish. Not all that surprising, really. Last night wore me the fuck out.

And believe me, I chose those words very carefully.

“I am very sorry to disturb sir, but as I recall, sir said that sir wished to be informed of any new information pertinent to the impending visit of the NCR President Aaron Kimball.”

“Oh, right...” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes and trying to pick myself up. Cass was also stirring, apparently having gotten the message from all the noise that sleep was no longer in the cards. “What’s the good word?”

“Yes Man and I have intercepted and decrypted several transmissions regarding the President’s forthcoming itinerary. Based on this information, I and m’colleage have deduced that Bear Force One will arrive at Hoover Dam around... roughly... noon-ish. Give or take.” There were several odd things from that whole sequence of words that I was having immense difficulty parsing. But what was the oddest thing, rushing to the forefront of my thoughts?

“... Bear Force One?” I asked. “Seriously?”

“Apologies, sir. I am only reporting what was discovered in the course of my intelligence gathering, and passing it on to sir, as sir requested. Do not shoot the proverbial messenger,” Jeeves replied. There was a long pause. “For what it is worth, even I find it dreadfully uncreative.” And with that, my Pip Boy’s radio turned off with a beep.

“Sounds like ye’ve gotta busy day ‘head’ve ya...” Cass muttered with a weary smile, drumming her fingers against my chest, casual as you like. I nodded, trying to blink away my tiredness. The neurons in my brain were still not quite firing all at once just yet, but it felt like... something was missing. I looked around to get my bearings...

A mostly-transparent, glowing, purple, and completely naked girl was sitting cross legged at the end of the bed. Her purple face was staring at me with wide, unblinking, purple eyes. As soon as it was clear I’d noticed her, she gave me a tiny wave.

“Good morning, my little teddy bears,” Dala cooed. “I trust you both had a pleasant rest.” Cass grunted something incoherent, and slowly nodded. I, on the other hand, was now completely awake.

“Have... have you been watching us all night?” I asked.

“Of course!” she said with a smile edging right on the border of creepy. “I do not need sleep, but I find the biological process fascinating.” Dala leaned forward, and started slowly running her hands on our legs; one hand on Cass’ leg, and one on mine. Cass shivered and moaned at the electric tingle of a holographic hand running along her thigh, and I’m not too proud to admit that I made some noises of the involuntary variety myself. “I... I collected an abundance of... data. Last night.”

“Yeah... was a helluva party, wasn’ it?” Cass chuckled, lightly grabbing the Dala hologram by the shoulder and bringing her in closer. “Was it good fer you?” Dala just started giggling like a schoolgirl. And just like that, I found myself with a girl on each arm.

“So... y’know, I was thinkin’...” I began. But then my train of thought was rather violently derailed as Dala started kissing my neck.

“Were ya now?” Cass whispered huskily, nibbling on my ear.

“Y-yeah...” I managed to squeak out. “I’s... thinkin’... President’s not gonna get in for a couple hours, right? So... I, uh... I don’t have to leave... y’know, just yet.” Cass looked up at me with a predatory smile and chuckled.

Oh?” Cass said in a mock-surprised tone. “Pray tell, what’d y’have in mind?” The two of us started laughing, and we looked over at Dala; I could swear I saw those holographic cheeks flush.

“Oh y’know. This, that, an’ the other...” I chuckled. “Yeah, President Fuckface can keep for a few more hours.” Cass leaned over me to show Dala some attention, and immediately the holographic girl went cross eyed and giggly.

“K-kimball...” Dala moaned out.

“Whatever.”

- - -

The world shifted into focus, and when the dust cleared I saw that the teleporter had deposited me several feet away from my Corvega. It was still parked right where I left it. I laughed to myself, tracing a finger along the hood as I passed.

“Hey there, gorgeous. Y’miss me?” I patted the hood gently. “Don’t you worry, I’m not gonna forget you. The teleport makes things easy right now, but I’m always gonna need some wheels...”

I paused, looking back at my Corvega, and I stood there for a few seconds, confused as realization at what I’d just been doing dawned.

“Right, I’m talking to my car now,” I muttered, rubbing my eyes. “Definitely been hanging around The Sink too much...”

“We could always have the Think Tank design a personality construct for your car,” Sue chimed in happily. “You know. If it’ll make it feel less weird.”

“Pretty sure that’d be worse,” I shook my head and kept going. “Now, where the fuck is Boone?”

It didn’t take long to find him. He’d set up camp on that same ridge I’d left last night; I couldn’t see an actual campsite, but I knew Boone was around, because there was a dead Legion soldier propped up against a nearby rock with a bowie knife sticking out of his head.

“Busy night?” I asked aloud; Boone grunted in the affirmative, and seemed to appear from nowhere. He was still wearing his Desert Ranger armor and had the Gobi Campaign rifle slung across his chest.

“For us both, it seems,” he grunted. “You stink like sex.”

“D- wh- I – uh...” I spluttered out some flustered gibberish before weakly collecting myself. “Hey, c’mon man, I – I took a shower!” Boone’s expression behind his sunglasses did not change.

Without Cass?” he asked. I didn’t answer, but I could tell from his slowly shaking head that he could read my expression plain as day. “Eh, you should be fine. Most people don’t even wash anyway. They won’t smell anything beyond the usual funk.”

“Moving on swiftly,” I coughed out, trying to regain some measure of lost dignity. “What’s up with the corpse?”

“He tried to set up a sniper nest here, around one this morning,” Boone growled out, moving to the top of the ridge and lying down on top of a blanket. “Never even saw me coming.” While he worked, I could see now why he liked this spot. Apart from the clear line of sight to the entire venue outside the Visitors Center below, the fact that he could lay down behind the ridge meant he’d have concealment rendering him practically invisible to anyone who might look up, and the firing platform was – quite literally – rock solid. A sniper could hardly ask for a better spot.

“How many assassins are here, you figure?” I asked. Boone shrugged from his spot while he adjusted the scope.

“Enough,” he grunted. “One less, now.” He cocked his head to the side, angling an ear towards the sky. “You’d better get ready. He’s on his way.”

“You sure?” I asked. A second later, I got my answer: the very faintest whisper of vertibird blades far, far in the distance, but getting closer. Just on reflex, I started to reach for my guns, because it made me think of the Enclave vertibirds on the Moon. Instead, I pulled my helmet off my belt, secured it in place on my head, and I vanished with a shimmering rainbow miasma. “I’ll keep in contact.” Boone gave me a subtle thumbs-up as I left; his hand barely moved from the sniper rifle.

“You know, you could’ve stuck up for me, earlier...” I muttered softly as I quietly made my way over to the Visitor’s Center... after I made sure to mute my headset mic first.

“And do what, deny the truth?” Sue asked with an edge of indignation to her digital voice. “It’s not my fault you two are so horny.”

“Chalk it up to stress relief,” I grumbled. For a moment, I paused. “It.... I dunno. It feels like we’re nearing an end to things. The big final showdown is bearing down on us. No matter what happens or who wins when Legion makes their move, nothing is going to be the same. And I... I just... I don’t want to leave anything... unsaid. Y’know?” As the words came out of my mouth, it was like I’d been dumped in ice water; as if I hadn’t even thought of it like that myself until saying it out loud.

“Or undone,” Sue said without a moments hesitation, puncturing my melancholy like a needle popping a balloon.

“I should never have taught you sarcasm.”

- - -

The President sure knew how to make an entrance. I’ll give him that much, if nothing else.

The entire venue had been decked out in red, white, and gold banners, and NCR flags were flying from every stick pretending to be a flagpole. Even though the crowd was small, it was impressively packed with soldiers in NCR fatigues and engineers in jumpsuits plastered with the bear logo. Two large cameras were mounted near the back of the crowd, on raised, swiveling platforms, and at least three men that I could see with shoulder mounted cameras were moving through the crowd; I can only assume they were trying to make everything look bigger on TV than it was in real life.

And there were NCR Rangers absolutely everywhere.

By the time I reached the edges of the Visitors Center, the vertibird was no longer a distant speck on the horizon; the pilot seemed to be taking his sweet time getting here, though, and for a few seconds I couldn’t figure out why. But then, the aircraft started doing a slow circle of Hoover Dam, high above our heads, while the sounds of trumpets and drums blasted through every speaker. It was a recording of “Hail to the Chief” that started playing, because of course the NCR had appropriated the old world Presidential anthem.

What’s that old phrase? Sound and fury, signifying nothing? Yeah, I think that pretty much sums it up.

The crowd erupted in cheers as ‘Bear Force One’ came in for its final approach, making it even easier for me to sneak up to the landing platform on the roof of the Visitor’s Center. I climbed up the side, finding enough handholds for me to get up top almost the same time the vertibird landed.

The side doors on the aircraft slid open, and a pair of Rangers wearing Black Armor leaped out, guns at the ready. I didn’t see the President at first – because he’d gotten out from the other side, and was quickly rushed into the stairwell. A pair of engineers in jumpsuits approached the aircraft and the Rangers – convinced that there was no immediate danger – fell in behind the rest of the President’s entourage to cover the rear.

I wasn’t convinced. And I was vindicated of that suspicion mere seconds later when one of the engineers took the other to the back of the aircraft and shanked him right through the neck.

The pilot didn’t seem to notice; he seemed focused on keeping the engines idling – presumably, for a quick getaway. Then again, the murder was in the aircraft’s blindspot, right beneath the tail boom, behind the fuselage and out of the way of the spinning tail rotor. So it’s possible he didn’t actually see it.

I had plenty of time to think about all that, thanks to the damn helicopter blades buffeting me with heavy winds, blasting me in the face and trying to knock me down. I was so hampered by the artificial windstorm that I couldn’t get to the assassin fast enough; by the time I got in striking distance, he’d already reached into his satchel and attached a small metal box to the side of the aircraft. Quietly, I grabbed the shank out of the dead engineer’s neck. I tapped the assassin on the shoulder and decloaked. When he turned around, he looked surprised.

“You’re working too hard.”

He continued looking surprised when I stabbed him through the eye. He fell to the wayside with a wet thud. I couldn’t dwell, because I had work to do.

“Emily!” I said, tapping the side of my helmet. “C’mon, please tell me you’re there, Em, I need your help right now!” There was a short burst of static.

“Yes! Hello, sorry. What’s –”

“Look at my video feed,” I practically barked; if this was what I thought it was, I had no time to bullshit. “What am I looking at?” I knew exactly what I was looking at. I’d seen enough explosives to know that this was definitely a bomb. But I desperately hoped that I was wrong.

“One second...” I heard the sounds of furious typing that suddenly came to a dead stop. “... That’s a bomb.”

“Good, I’m glad we’ve established that,” I said, not really feeling glad at all. “How do I get rid of it?”

“Don’t pull it off!” Emily shouted. “If that’s the bomb design I think it is, then it has a trigger attached to those magnets keeping it in place. You’ll have to disarm it before you can even attempt to move it.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” I grumbled. “Okay, so how the fuck do I disarm this thing? I’m guessing it has something to do with these wires and the keypad.”

“Uh...” There was a brief shuffling of papers over my headset. “Those wires in front of you: what colors are they?”

“Can’t you tell?” I asked.

“The picture is in black and white!” she said with a slight touch of hysteria. “Now please! Keep talking, and nobody explodes!”

“Alright, alright,” I said. “There are four wires that I can see: a red one, a blue one, another blue one, and a yellow one.” As I said each color, I pointed to the wire I was talking about. I had no idea if the order was important, but I figured that as much information as possible couldn’t hurt. There was more shuffling of papers, some indistinct mumbling, and a brief burst of keyboard typing before she responded.

“Okay...” she took a deep breath. “Cut the second wire from the top.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, pulling out my wire cutters. They were a bit more heavy duty than this job required, being mostly used for cutting through chain link fences, but they would have to do.

“Yes. Four wires, only one red, the last is yellow, and there are two blue: it’s the second wire from the top.”

I honestly wish I felt as confident as she sounded just then. I positioned the wire cutters above where they needed to be, and my whole body tensed up. I couldn’t exhale, and I didn’t dare look as I began to apply pressure to the wire cutters...

Snip.

I cracked open one of my eyes. The bomb hadn’t exploded, and I let out a heavy sigh of relief.

“We’re not done yet,” Emily said, ruining my mild reprieve. “You still have the second module to disable.” I cursed silently under my breath. “Aaaaand now the timer has activated!”

I’m fairly certain I started swearing far more heavily at that point, but I can’t quite recall the string of profanity that resulted.

“Alright, calm down, calm down,” Emily said hastily. “The symbols on the keypad: you’re going to have to describe them. I can’t see them clearly.”

“Fer fuck sake...” I muttered, finally able to form a coherent thought. “Alright, the only one I recognize is an Omega, that sort of a horseshoe looking thing. There’s one that looks like a trident, a weird sort of 6-looking character, and an ‘a’ and ‘e’ smashed together.”

“Hold on...” Emily said amid the sound of more flipped pages.

“Can’t hold on, we’re almost to a minute,”

“Hold on!” she said again, a bit more desperately this time. “Okay, got it. The sequence is: the weird 6, the Latin a-e, the Psi – er, the trident – and then the Omega.”

Once again, I clenched my teeth (and my bowels), and did as I was told, hoping desperately that it wouldn’t blow up in my face. I pressed all four buttons in sequence, a tiny green light flickered to life in the corner of the bomb, and the countdown timer stopped with 42 seconds to spare.

“Fantastic!” Emily whooped, laughing happily. “You should be able to detach the magnets holding it in place now...”

Well, that’s one problem dealt with, I thought, removing the bomb and placing it back in the satchel. By the time I slung the satchel over my shoulder (even disarmed, I couldn’t leave a fuckin’ bomb just lying around, could I?), the music from the venue below finally came to a stop. A female voice began speaking, and I slipped back into invisibility to get a good look over the edge of the roof. A stern faced woman in an NCR officer uniform with several gold braids around her right shoulder was at the podium, speaking into the mic.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, her voice echoing off every surface as it blasted from all the speakers. “I’d like to thank you for coming out here today for this very special occasion. It is my pleasure to introduce to you: the President of the New California Republic, Aaron Kimball!”

Again, the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause; the female officer started clapping herself as she stepped away from the podium, allowing a man in a suit to walk on stage. Kimball looked pretty much exactly like his portraits had always depicted him: a large man in a blue suit and blue tie, with a square jaw and a flat-top haircut. He waved to the crowd and smiled as he approached the podium, and acted like the four heavily armed Black Armor Rangers taking position behind him weren’t there.

“Thank you, Colonel Moore,” Kimball said, giving her a nod before turning to the crowd. “And thank you, my fellow Californians, who have come so far to answer the call to service put forth by the Republic...”

The speech was well and truly underway now. I quickly dragged the bodies out from underneath the vertibird, reactivated the therm-optic camo, and made my way off the roof.

“Boone, you readin’ me?” I asked, circling the outer edges of the crowd. So far, no one seemed to notice me.

“Loud and clear,” he grunted. “Good work with the bomb by the way.”

“Thanks!” Emily said, quite cheerfully. “I always knew this bomb defusal manual would come in handy one day!”

“What’s the view from upstairs?” I asked, trying to get the conversation back on track.

“Seems quiet...” Boone muttered. I looked up at the ridge; I knew he was there, but I couldn’t see him. Which I supposed was entirely the point. “Scratch that.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

“The tower,” Boone answered curtly. “There’s some kind of ruckus.”

Even with the President’s speech droning on in the background, creating a wonderful blanket of white noise, there was only so fast I felt I could move without attracting attention – even when cloaked. I was moving as fast as I dared, and it didn’t feel fast enough.

I certainly wasn’t fast enough for the Ranger who fell from the tower. He impacted the ground right in front of me the precise moment I arrived at the base of the tower, and turned into a pavement pancake. His head was turned completely around from the way it should’ve been, and I couldn’t tell if that was from the fall, or if someone had broken his neck before tossing him over the side.

Either way, this Ranger was quite dead.

“Oh God!” Emily squeaked over my headset.

“That is not encouraging...” I muttered to myself as I started to climb the ladder. “Boone, keep me covered.”

“Got it.”

The whole climb up, I silently cursed the need for stealth right now. It was like I was playing the most annoying game of Red Light, Green Light in the world. I mean, what was the point of shit like my grappling hook or the rocket boots or any of my methods of ascending high places quickly if they were too noisy for me to use? Oh well.

I vaulted over the side and when I landed on top of the tower I was presented with a ‘Ranger.’ Even from my limited experience dealing with actual NCR Rangers, I could tell just from his body language that this guy was no Ranger (despite the armor he was wearing). He was twitchy as all fuck, and looking back and forth quickly; he was pacing without even needing to move his feet. The campaign hat on his head was askew, which was another clue as every other Ranger in the place wore their hats in line with their spine and all business-like. But I’ll tell you right now what clinched it most of all for me: the lack of trigger discipline for the rifle in his hands.

Still, I’ve been wrong before. And it’s not like the other assassin, who I caught in the act of actually stabbing someone. So, I thought I’d give him the chance to explain himself.

What can I say, I needed a laugh.

“Hey!” I said aloud, decloaking; he immediately jumped at the noise. “There’s a dead ranger downstairs!”

“Oh, shit!” he said, with an expression that made it clear he’d just done exactly that in his pants. “R-really? Well... we should go take a look then!”

“You know, you have a radio right there,” I said, pointing at the radio console sitting on the table next to him. “You could just... you know. Call it in.”

“Uh...” he paused, and his left eye twitched. “I... I think I should check it out first before radioing it in.”

This guy is really bad at this, I thought to myself. But the longer I kept him distracted, the less chance he’d have to take a shot at President Dipshit down there. Or, you know. Kimball. Whatever.

“No, I don’t think so.” I said simply. “You need to radio in anything suspicious before you do anything, so you can get orders from higher up the food chain. Don’t they teach you anything at Ranger school?” Again, his eye twitched.

“Fuck it,” he said, trying to lift up his rifle. “You’re more trouble than –”

Before he got a chance to finish, I lightly tapped him in the face with my cybernetic fist; he recoiled violently as a fountain of blood burst out of his nose. He rallied surprisingly fast, pulling a knife out from somewhere, but by then I’d already grabbed his rifle and pulled it free of his hands. The knife stabbed the air where I’d been standing seconds before, and I responded in kind with a rifle butt to his face.

There was a crack of snapping bone, and the disguised Legion assassin fell dead at my feet. For some reason I couldn’t quite understand, I held onto his rifle and didn’t let it go. Drops of blood fell from the end of the stock, splashing on the concrete near my boots. I looked over the edge of the tower, down at the President from this vantage point high above him...

And I hesitated.

The Legion were evil, through and through, that much was true enough... but the NCR weren’t exactly saints, either.

In an instant, my mind was flooded with faces and names: all the young men and women who had been sent in droves to die far from home. So many people. So much potential. All of it squandered. All those brave men and women, most of them just kids, with nothing to gain and everything to lose... gone. They’d all had their futures taken from them... and for what?

To satisfy the greed of that wretched, pathetic excuse for a man below me.

Aaron Kimball.

All the wars he’d started and dragged on for fucking years... all the bloodshed... all the horror... The blame for all of it could be laid squarely at his feet. That bloodthirsty warhawk – that fucking politician! – was to blame; constantly urging the NCR ever onward, expanding without heed to the consequences... or to the price paid in blood by far too many.

The Bear grows without structure. Follows a symbol without knowing its history.

Ulysses’ words coming out of my mouth.

A chill ran up my spine.

In that single split-second, it was like I could hear the anguished screams of the dead at my heels... and the cold grasp of thousands of hands reaching out for me. Clawing at me from beyond the grave. Urging me to take the shot. I could do it, I thought to myself, my knuckles cracking as I gripped the rifle even tighter. Right here, right now. I could bring vengeance for all those damned souls who had lost everything.

You have a clean shot, they all seemed to say.

End him now.

“Sheason, are you alright?” Sue’s voice buzzed in my ear, like she was a million miles away. “Your heart rate is elevated and spiking rapidly. Are you in need of assistance?”

I didn’t say a word.

I dropped the rifle in my hands.

“I’m fine...” I muttered through clenched teeth. My voice was thick and hoarse, as if my very throat was made out of sandpaper. I vanished with a rainbow miasma and climbed back down the ladder, away from that fucking sniper nest.

“Nice work up there,” Boone’s voice echoed in my ear, rattling around inside my skull. “He didn’t stand a chance.”

“Hrmm,” I grunted back. I tried my best to shake it off, and made my way to the edges of the crowd once again; the President was still droning on, apparently giving some kind of award to a young looking and clean-cut soldier on stage next to him.

“Do you think that’s the last of them?” Emily asked. “I mean... how many is that, anyway?”

“I count three,” Boone grunted. “The one from last night. The fake engineer with the bomb. And the sniper just now.”

Three.

A gnawing sensation started pulling at my gut.

Three.

Something felt wrong... but it was a different sort of wrong than before...

Three.

“It’s not over,” I said, suddenly alert and remembering the dozens of hit squads Vulpes had sent my way the last few months. “Legion assassins always travel in packs of four.” Speaking of which:

“Four years ago, we held this dam,” Kimball’s voice echoed. It almost sounded like he was getting close to the end of his speech. “Four years ago, we carried the weight. Four years ago, we drew a line through the Mojave as clear as the Colorado River, a line that Caesar cannot cross...”

I scanned the crowd as he kept talking, trying to fit all the pieces together. Whenever I’d run into (and wiped out) hit squads in the past, they’d work as a team... which meant these weren’t four separate plans, it was all part of the same plan. I tried to work it out in my head...

Someone to plant the bomb on the vertibird, to cut off his escape route. A sniper to take the shot. A backup in case the first one failed. What would the fourth one do? Where would the fourth one –

A soldier at the edge of the crowd started looking around, despite everyone else in the crowd still looking at the President. Confident that no one was looking, he very cautiously and carefully stuck a hand in his pocket, and started slowly walking in the direction of the stage.

“Em, question:” I asked, tugging at a thought. “That bomb we defused... can it be remotely detonated?”

“Well, yeah,” she sounded confused. “A remote detonator is the primary way of setting it off. The timer was the tampering failsafe. But with the detonation sequencer disabled...” she trailed off, apparently coming to the same conclusion as me.

“Boone, I got a plan,” I said. “Get ready to fire on my signal.” I made a beeline for the Legion assassin disguised as an NCR trooper walking briskly to the stage.

“You are the great western light of California!” Kimball continued to drone on, oblivious. “Torchbearers in the darkness! Living reminders of all that is best in our Republic! Thank you, thank you!” He gave one last wave, and there was a slight pause as he stepped away from the podium. And then: “Okay, let’s get the fuck out of here. What the hell are you waiting for? Do you think I want to get shot? Let’s go!”

A ripple of nervous laughter washed over the crowd, while the assassin pulled the detonator out of his pocket. He clicked the button several times, and he looked up at the defiantly un-exploded vertibird in frustration. He looked over at the empty tower, and then back behind him at the ridge, and his eyes went wide before folding into a scowl.

“Damnit!” he growled, tossing away the detonator and pulling a surprisingly large blade out of his left sleeve. He raised the blade high above his head and rushed to the stage, yelling: “Ave, true to Cæsar!”

The crowd erupted in screams and shouts as people started to flee in every direction, and the infernal racket almost managed to drown out the sound of snapping bone. His arm bent and twisted out of shape in my grip, and I could tell that all this fast movement was making my therm-optic camo flicker and fail something awful. I grabbed him by the collar with one hand, and buried my other fist into his face. I hit him several times, his face becoming more concave with every punch.

The crowd continued to scream – and why not? As far as they could tell, a semi-transparent ghost was beating the shit out of a man who tried to kill the President. But I wasn’t bothered. I just shifted my weight around, looping the satchel strap around his head, and keeping a firm hold on his squirming, bleeding body with my cybernetic hand. The satchel with the bomb suddenly appeared when it passed through the invisibility cloak.

“Ready?” I asked Boone.

“Pull,” he replied. I mustered all the strength I could manage with my cybernetic arm and threw the assassin as high and as far as I possibly could. He screamed as he tumbled end over end, sailing through the air, directly above the dam.

A hush fell over the crowd as they saw this absurd spectacle, and that meant everyone heard the muffled rifle shot... right before the bomb tied around his neck exploded, consuming him in a ball of fire. It was far enough away from the crowd when it exploded, that I’m fairly certain nobody (except the assassin) got hurt. In fact, it almost looked like some kind of fireworks display going off. Almost.

“Nice shot,” I said, pressing the button on my belt and returning to complete visibility; the therm-optic camo was still flickering, and with the last assassin dead, I figured I could afford to turn it off... at least momentarily.

“Nice throw,” Boone responded. I looked back at the ridge and gave him a thumbs up. I was just about to leave, when suddenly I heard the unmistakable sounds of half a dozen rifles being brought to bear. I looked back, and sure enough, all the Black Armor Rangers in Kimball’s honor guard had their guns trained on me.

Oh, right. I’m not supposed to be here.

“Now, now, they’ll be none of that...” I heard Kimball say, as he gently put a hand on top of the nearest rifle, and all of them lowered their guns at once. He walked towards me, straightening his tie and trying to smooth his suit. “I think that thanks are in order. If it wasn’t for your impressive abilities, that suicide bomber could have seriously hurt someone in the crowd here! So I thank you... whoever you are.” He cleared his throat and seemed to pose for the cameras that were focused on him as he extended a hand in my direction. “What’s your name, son?”

A very bad idea suddenly sprang into my head.

Punch the head, don’t kick the feet.

“Oh, I’m just a Courier...” I coughed out with a laugh, looking around at the crowd. Everyone was looking at me, and I was very, very glad I was wearing this helmet. I took one step forward, but didn’t shake his hand. “And I’ve got a message for you. I may have saved your life... but that doesn’t mean I have to like you.” Kimball looked confused, and rightly so.

“What?” he asked.

CRACK!

All it took was one solid left hook across the jaw, and the President of the NCR was knocked the fuck out on live TV.

“Message delivered!” I yelled as I ran in the opposite direction. By the time the bullets started flying, I had already vanished behind the therm-optic camouflage. Within seconds, I was well and truly gone.

- - -

“Good, you’re packed up already!” I said, decloaking as I ran for my Corvega. Boone was already waiting for me in the passenger seat. “I think it’s time for us to go, too! Great minds think alike, eh?”

Within seconds of me getting in, I fired my car up we were high-tailing it away from Hoover Dam as quickly as the wheels would allow. For a few seconds, Boone didn’t say anything, and just let me get on with the ‘getting us out of here as quickly as possible’ part of the plan. But then he started to shake his head.

“You punched him,” he growled out. “You punched... the President... in the face.”

“On live TV!” I gave him a smile worthy of the Cheshire Cat. “I figured it was either punch a dick in the head, or punch a dick-head, so I went with the high road instead of below the belt.” Boone just sighed heavily while I started laughing. Somewhere high above us, I could hear the rhythmic thud of the President’s vertibird taking off and heading back to California.

“Was that strictly necessary?” he asked rhetorically.

“Maybe not,” I shrugged. “Felt good, though.”
New Vegas: Sheason's Story (Chapter 168)
Fun fact: that whole "Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes" sequence is actually accurate to how the game is played. I studied the bomb defusal manual while writing it, to make sure it would be instantly recognizable to anyone who has played the game. I have not actually played it myself, as 1) I don't own a VR headset, and 2) I am a friendless loser, and the game must be played with at least 2 people. I have, however, seen tons of Let's Play videos of it. More, after Penny Arcade made a comic about it.

Another fun fact: Sheason was always going to punch the President in the face. This is not a response to the current political climate, but was my plan from the very start. This is one of many reasons I kept putting so much emphasis on the phrase "Punch the head, don't kick the feet," throughout the story.

Final note: I'm not sure, but I think this is the first time I managed to sneak in two references to Mass Effect in a single chapter. Even though the series is still tainted in my eyes by THAT ENDING, I still love those Renegade interrupts from 1 and 2.
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Don't worry, this isn't a political post, sit down.

So, I'm almost done with the next chapter. Hooray! And with this, I think I can safely say that the story is finally - FINALLY! - coming to a close. Yes, that elusive goal peeking over the horizon, forever distant and forever out of reach, is actually going to be attained.

I can't give any solid dates for any chapter except the next one, because that's the only one I've done any work on, and I've learned from experience not to commit to a date unless the project is just about finished.

Here's the rough outline of what you can expect:

Chapter 168: In the Line of Fire
Chapter 169: The Calm
Chapter 170: The Storm
Chapter 171: Welcome to Hell
Chapter 172: Cashing Out
Epilogue
Afterword

After all this time, I'm finally on the verge of actually finishing a project for once in my miserable life. Which means I can finally put this damn thing to bed, and actually move on to something else.

I am just as surprised as all of you.
I'm at the top of page 8.

You remember that bit during the quest where you're trying to save Aaron Kimball, and you have to disable a bomb on his vertibird? Well, the way it goes down in the chapter is that it starts off as a reference to one of the best one-liners in Mass Effect 2, and it becomes an extremely blatant reference to the game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. So blatant, that Emily literally says "Keep talking, and nobody explodes!"

I'm not sorry.

I'm going to go to sleep now because I should've been in bed 2 hours ago.
I'm on page 4. This is at least an improvement from the last few weeks, where I had been sitting at one and a half.

Also: while gratuitous and self indulgent, the whole Sheason/Cass/Dala threesome is actually going to be somewhat important. Not really in terms of plot, but in terms of character motivations. Hopefully. I'm trying to make it like the Romance achievement in the Mass Effect games, where there's always that one last scene of "stress relief" (oh, is that what the kids are calling it these days?) before the final battle / suicide mission.

Sheason can feel the end coming.




Perhaps that was an unfortunate choice of words.
A mostly-transparent, glowing, purple, and completely naked girl was sitting cross legged at the end of the bed. Her purple face was staring at me with wide, unblinking, purple eyes. As soon as it was clear I’d noticed her, she gave me a tiny wave.

“Good morning, my little teddy bears,” Dala cooed. “I trust you both had a pleasant rest.” Cass grunted something incoherent, and slowly nodded. I, on the other hand, was now completely awake.

“Have... have you been watching us all night?” I asked.

“Of course!” she said with a smile edging right on the border of creepy. “I do not need sleep, but I find the biological process fascinating.” Dala leaned forward, and started slowly running her hands on our legs; one hand on Cass’ leg, and one on mine. Cass shivered and moaned at the electric tingle of a holographic hand running along her thigh, and I’m not too proud to admit that I made some noises of the involuntary variety myself. “I... I collected an abundance of... data. Last night.”

“Yeah... was a helluva party, wasn’ it?” Cass chuckled, lightly grabbing the Dala hologram by the shoulder and bringing her in closer. “Was it good fer you?” Dala just started giggling like a schoolgirl. And just like that, I found myself with a girl on each arm.

“So... y’know, I was thinkin’...” I began. But then my train of thought was rather violently derailed as Dala started kissing my neck.

“Were ya now?” Cass whispered huskily, nibbling on my ear.

“Y-yeah...” I managed to squeak out. “I’s... thinkin’... President’s not gonna get in for a couple hours, right? So... I, uh... I don’t have to leave... y’know, just yet.” Cass looked up at me with a predatory smile and chuckled.

Oh?” Cass said in a mock-surprised tone. “Pray tell, what’d y’have in mind to... pass the time?” The two of us started laughing, and we looked over at Dala; I could swear I saw those holographic cheeks flush.

“Oh y'know. This, that, an' the other..." I chuckled. "Yeah, President Fuckface can keep for a few more hours.” Cass leaned over me to show Dala some attention, and immediately the holographic girl went cross eyed and giggly.

“K-kimball...” Dala said breathlessly (wait, what?).

“Whatever.”

///

This is probably the most self indulgent thing I've ever, EVER written. And it's totally going into the next chapter.

I'm not sorry.

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:iconavenger09:
avenger09 Featured By Owner Edited Nov 21, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
It's kinda sad/weird how all the previous Games antagonists have been declawed in the sequels. 
The Supermutants who once threatened to overrun humanity and convert them to their Unity. Are have become a common sight with many turning out to be all right people. 

The Enclave. Scattered to the four winds like leaf's from a felled tree, unlikely ever to sprout with the same might in the Radioactive soil. 

Makes me wonder how the Institute will fair in Future instalments. 
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:iconavenger09:
avenger09 Featured By Owner Edited Nov 14, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
I've always wondered what Marcus though of good old Lou. www.youtube.com/watch?v=8U9T8Z…;
Perhaps he could reference him in conversation with Chris and Shea?
Or maybe share with Chris a photo of his Dad and his group, like this one. andronicusvii.deviantart.com/a…
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:iconhyperdragon97:
hyperdragon97 Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
In your side stories taking place at the Inventory, you said that the character of Sheason Fisher could theoretically fit into almost any game or story. That has me wondering two things. First, what are the definitive traits that all iterations of Sheason would share? And second, what might Sheason be like as an Overwatch character?
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:iconsheason:
Sheason Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
I'm pretty sure Sheason is already there, underneath Soldier 76's face mask.
Now, I know Soldier 76 is the most boringly generic of all the colorful characters in that game, but look at the list:
-Old and grizzled as fuck
-A skilled killer, no matter what weapon he decides to use
-Probably drinks heavily
-Used to be idealistic and is now cynical and jaded, but will still do the right thing as a first instinct, despite himself.
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:iconhyperdragon97:
hyperdragon97 Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
That actually makes a lot of sense. 
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:iconvoltron64:
Voltron64 Featured By Owner Oct 31, 2016
It's a bit of a dissapointment you won't have Tuera around when the Courier meets Lanius himself.

"Chuck? What in god's name is all this?"

"...And a pleasure to see you too, Mary."
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:iconsheason:
Sheason Featured By Owner Oct 31, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
I'm fairly certain he hasn't gone by Chuck in years.

"That name no longer has any meaning for me..."
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:iconavenger09:
avenger09 Featured By Owner Oct 25, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Have you ever thought of doing a height chart, so we can see Shea and his companions, against the Enclave, NCR, and Legion, characters?
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:iconavenger09:
avenger09 Featured By Owner Edited Oct 8, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
This reminds me of the Talking heads we saw in 1 and 2. 
www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9SvLO…
So it's kind of gone full circle. 
The announcement trailer was also something. www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibi4iA…
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:iconvoltron64:
Voltron64 Featured By Owner Sep 24, 2016
I just wanna say, I can't help but visualize Chris as being danza-ed by a certain Mr. Hemsworth. ;)
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