(I’ve been playing Fallout: New Vegas lately, a game that doesn’t seem to end, no matter how many damn hours I put into it. The following is the direct result of that. If you’re familiar with the sometimes weird behavior of non-player characters in video games, you may get more out of this than if you don’t. In any case, fair warning: this is me, geeking out.)
I’m a courier.
I had the package I was supposed to deliver stolen from me, they put two bullets in my head and left me in a shallow grave in the Mojave Wasteland. I didn’t die. Guess I’m just ornery like that. I got my payback, believe me, although that was just the beginning. But that’s another story, one I don’t even know the ending to yet. This one’s about Sergeant McGee.
Can’t say I know McGee very well. Seems like an okay guy; he’s serving in the New California Republic’s Army 5th Battalion, 1st Company. To be honest, he didn’t look like much when I first saw him. We talked a little when I was waiting on his boss, Lieutenant Hayes. McGee said he hadn’t been home for a while, he was serving his second tour of duty. I had things on my mind. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.
Hayes had a problem with some escaped NCR prisoners in a town called Primm; they’d taken over and dug in pretty good, and Hayes didn’t have the manpower to do anything about it. They had themselves a stalemate, and the civilians were caught in the middle. Hayes was waiting on reinforcements he knew weren’t coming, so he just barricaded them in, sprinkled on a light coat of landmines to discourage anyone from sneaking out, and settled down to wait.
It seemed like the usual bullshit to me — if Primm had a little more strategic importance, or if there was a little bit of glory in it, the kind of action that can earn you a couple of medals, or if the enemy in there had been a serious threat, they would’ve done something about it. But the people in Primm weren’t even NCR citizens. They just didn’t rate in the NCR’s eyes. It was easier to sit tight and starve the enemy out. And if the convicts decided to extend their life by resorting to alternate cuisine, well — like I said, Primm wasn’t an NCR territory. Everybody’s got their own problems.
It didn’t sit right with me.
I solved the problem, the way problems like that get solved out here in the Wasteland. When the gunsmoke cleared, Hayes had a different tone — he was eager to fold the good folks at Primm into the NCR flock, ready to offer protection after the fact. “See? You don’t want something like this happening again, do you?” Not in so many words, of course, but you could tell that was his message of joy and optimism — like the convicts weren’t running free because the NCR fucked up in the first place.
The convicts’d started out by murdering the sheriff and his wife, so Primm was in sore need of some law and order. The NCR would’ve been happy to provide it. McGee could’ve been their sheriff. I guess he would’ve been a good one.
But I don’t know if it was just what Hayes was saying rubbing me the wrong way, or maybe it was the bullets lodged in my head making me a little crazy. I didn’t like it, those NCR boys kicking back outside and then moving in to take over once somebody else had done the bleeding for them. So I made a local robot the sheriff. I had plenty of pull in Primm after what I did, so they went for it. Anyway, that ridiculous tin man was already programmed for it, all I had to do was dust off those subroutines and set him loose. What I’m saying is it made sense at the time.
Hayes didn’t like it, but he wasn’t in a position to argue about it. I guess he didn’t feel too good about it either. He was just following his orders. He thanked me politely enough for my help. I did another job for him, helped him wrap up the problem with those prisoners — for pay, and maybe to kind of apologize for the stunt with the robot, I don’t know. Anyway, after that Hayes took off.
I didn’t see McGee there, or don’t remember seeing him. Maybe I just didn’t notice. He was a pretty quiet guy.
The next weeks were a blur for me. I caught up with the guy who shot me, returned the favor with interest, took what he stole from me and made my delivery, and everything was getting more and more complicated. By then, I was travelling with this lady named Veronica — it wasn’t like that, we were just friends; she was fun and easy on the eye, but she didn’t go for boys and that was that — and I’d found myself a pooch named Rex. Rex was half robot, and I’d had to replace his brain with that of another dog. Long story, never mind. Point is, it took a while for me to run into McGee again.
I’m not sure how much later it was. It was probably at least a month since I’d last seen him, could well be more, but I happened to be near Primm when I spotted Sergeant McGee again, near the old Jean Sky Diving shack. He was just walking along the highway, alone, keeping a steady pace. Not exactly standard operating procedure for NCR troops. He didn’t say anything when he saw me. I greeted him. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. Seeing somebody I recognized felt nice.
He stopped and looked me in the eye. He didn’t return my greeting.
“What is it?”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“Nothing,” I finally replied. I threw in a smile, tried to make some kind of a connection.
He didn’t smile back, or frown, or anything. He wasn’t being cold, or unfriendly, just sticking to business. “Sir,” he said with a little nod — polite, respectful, and yet I felt like I was the guy being dismissed. I wanted to tell him to stop calling me sir — I wasn’t an officer, I wasn’t even in the damn army — but I looked him in the eye, and I didn’t say anything.
He waited until I stepped aside, and then he started walking again. I watched him go. Then I went on to other business.
A week later, I had just been attacked by a small group of those convicts that had managed to avoid capture. Guess they held a grudge. It was stupid; they had sharp sticks, I had a laser rifle. The wind was still scattering their ashes around the Mojave when I spotted McGee again. It wasn’t far from where I’d seen him before. I don’t know if he’d been on the road all that time or what. It was weird, this was no more than half a mile from where I’d seen him last, if that. He was heading towards the same place I was going, Hidden Valley, where I had to meet… well, some people Veronica knew, never mind that.
This time, I didn’t say anything. I swung the rifle to my back and watched him walk past. Rex ran up to him. He stopped to say “hello” to the dog, and then kept going. He never even glanced at me. I almost asked him what his problem was then, but I was in a hurry. I jogged past him, Veronica and Rex in tow. When Veronica passed him, I heard his voice again: “Hello.”
I spent a couple of days in the Valley, busy with other things. When I came back out, I headed south; there’s a place called Scorpion Gulch there. A dumbass kid had dropped his laser pistol there, and because I can’t say no when somebody asks me for a favor, I went out looking for it, feeling like a moron all the time.
We blasted our way through a couple of radscorpions — no prizes for guessing how the damn place got its name — and made our way deeper into the Gulch. Not to brag, but it was no big deal for us, we had the armor and the weapons, and with all the shit we’d been through by then, we could deal with a couple of mutated arthropods, no matter how poisonous they were.
That was when I heard the gunfire from up ahead. I knew somebody was in trouble. I broke into a run, rounded a huge boulder, and there was McGee, firing his pistol at two giant radscorpions, both of them the size of cars. He was yelling something, but he wasn’t panicking; he kept firing and reloading, firing and reloading, pumping bullets into those huge bastards, but he was in a bad spot. It takes more than a pistol to bring them down, and you don’t want to let them get close. And he was outnumbered.
Before I even had the rifle in my hands, Rex was going for the radscorpions. He moved fast with the new brain, and I guess he liked McGee, and anyway, that dog loves a good scrap. Veronica was charging in right after him, power fist humming away. She blocked my shot; she’s never been too concerned about friendly fire. She landed a good punch; chitin cracked and juices spattered her face. The scorpion reached for her with a pincer, but Rex was hanging on it, steel jaws working, tearing the damn appendage apart. Veronica danced back, hydraulics in the power fist hissing as she drew her arm back; she threw another punch, flipped the scorpion on its back in a burst of yellow viscera. Rex lunged for the exposed underbelly, went to town.
I was peering through the scope. I finally had a shot. McGee was down on one knee, slamming another magazine home. He looked bad. The other radscorpion reared back, that big stinger bulging fat with venom, about to come down. I cut it off with a burst of bright heat. McGee got back on his feet, released the slide, chambering the round, slammed his foot on top of the writhing thing to hold it down. He aimed along his leg, pulled the trigger until the slide locked back again. I watched it through the scope, looking for another shot, but I didn’t need it. When the echoes died down, the radscorpion was still, riddled with holes. A pistol isn’t much good against them, but at that range, it’ll get the job done.
McGee was in a bad way. He’d been stung repeatedly; the venom was working on him. I’ve been there. It hurts worse than being shot in the head; it’s like acid coursing through your veins. I ran up to him, digging into my pack for the antivenom, ready to administer first aid.
McGee didn’t even look at me. He just started limping along, deeper into Scorpion Gulch. He looked like shit, he wasn’t moving too fast, but he kept moving. As he went, he reloaded the pistol.
I looked at him, looked at Veronica and Rex. They looked back at me.
I didn’t know where he was going, or why. I caught up with him, antivenom in hand, said his name.
“What is it?” he said, peering up at me. He had to be in pain — I could see he was in a bad way — but you couldn’t hear it in his voice. It was as steady as before.
I didn’t know what to say. “I can help you,” I wanted to say. “You’re poisoned, I have the antidote.” Or, “you’ll die out here if you don’t let give you a stimpack.” Or, “at least let me lend you a bigger gun.” But I didn’t say any of it. There was something about him that tied my tongue. He stared me down. I looked away.
“Sir,” he said. And kept limping along.
And I watched him go, and I thought about him.
If I’d let the NCR take over Primm, he’d have been the sheriff there, instead of that stupid hunk of junk I’d given the job to. Had I humiliated Lieutenant Hayes? Was McGee getting the shitty end of the stick because of that? I didn’t know what’d happened between him and his commanding officer, but I knew Hayes had returned to Camp Forlorn Hope, and by now it was obvious that McGee was going that way. I didn’t know for sure that that was his destination, but he was moving in the right direction. On foot, alone — why? What was he trying to prove?
There aren’t any good routes in the Mojave Wasteland, but he’d picked maybe the worst one imaginable. If he’d been moving with a squad of NCR troops, or at least stuck to the roads, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but just the radscorpions would have killed him if we hadn’t come along when we did, and the two-legged animals are often worse — and there’s no shortage of them; the Mojave is full of scum looking for an easy target. In terrain like that, you’re not gonna spot trouble until it’s right in your face.
And he was hurt, maybe dying. And maybe it was my fault.
“Aw, hell,” I said. Veronica said nothing. Rex barked. I had to make sure he didn’t get killed.
I don’t know if it was pride that kept him from accepting the medical attention I was dying to give him, or maybe the poison was messing with his mind. He moved without complaint, walking like a lame duck, but at a steady pace, clutching at his wounds, but never stumbling, never slowing down, the gun always in his hand. I wasn’t going to argue with him. This, I was learning, was a hard man, as hard as they come.
There were more scorpions, of course. They came at us in swarms, little ones, huge ones, crawling from the holes on the ravine walls, all of them eager to kill us. We didn’t have too much trouble taking them out; the trick was to protect McGee while we were doing it. His pistol thundered in a steady rhythm; by now he was as sick as a dog, but his shooting hand never shook, and he rarely missed. He never complained. When we walked, he moved slowly; we were used to moving around at a jog, but he limped along at what felt like a snail’s pace. But how do you tell a wounded man — maybe mortally wounded — to hurry? I didn’t want to face that indifference again, hear the words and know that somehow, I was being mocked. “What is it?” “Sir.” I knew those would be the only words he would say to me.
We came across the bodies of two prospectors, long dead. McGee didn’t even glance at them; for the first time, I felt vaguely guilty for going through their pockets, but in the Mojave, you take your supplies where you can find them, and these poor bastards sure as hell didn’t need them. I did. McGee did, too, but he wouldn’t take any of it.
When we reached the end of the gulch and saw the Helios One solar power plant, I felt relieved. We’d made it through Scorpion Gulch, and McGee was still alive. The rest of the way should be easier.
And then I realized he was gone.
I didn’t see him anywhere. I was sure that a scorpion had gotten him, or something, maybe he’d just finally collapsed. I looked. I looked for a long time, but I couldn’t see him. Sergeant McGee was just gone.
Finally, I had to give it up. He wasn’t here. I had a laser pistol to find. What else could I do?
I headed back through Scorpion Gulch, backtracking on the trail of dead scorpions we’d left, putting down a couple we’d missed the last time around. I was almost through to the other end, on the top of the slope that led down the gulch to Hidden Valley, when I spotted a figure ahead. I stopped in my tracks, raised the laser rifle and peered through the scope, and what stared back in full magnification was McGee’s face. He was limping towards me, still moving as slowly as before, with the same determination. Now he had a rifle on his back.
It was impossible. There was no way he could’ve made it back there so quickly, not at the speed he was moving. And where did the rifle come from? The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’ve seen some weird shit in my day, but this still felt creepy and wrong to me. The bottom line was: there was no way he could have beat us here… but here he was, struggling up the incline towards us.
I looked at Veronica. She looked back at me. We didn’t say anything. Rex barked and ran down to meet McGee.
“Hello,” he said to the dog, but didn’t pet him, didn’t stop, didn’t slow down.
He didn’t look at us when he came up the slope, and he didn’t look at us when he went past us. I stepped closer, and he stopped.
“Patrolling the Mojave almost makes you wish for a nuclear winter,” he said. It was an old NCR joke, one I’d heard from every NCR grunt I ever met. I didn’t laugh; he didn’t expect me to. He started moving again.
We made it through Scorpion Gulch a second time. This time, there were no scorpions. Maybe we’d killed them all, or maybe they’d learned their lesson. They didn’t want a piece of McGee. I wasn’t sure I did, either, but I still couldn’t leave him.
We saw Helios One again. I half expected him to disappear like before, but no, here he was. But the poison was working on him. There was a nice gentle slope down, leading to the flat ground below, but instead, he turned right and started walking up a steep slope, the kind that’ll give a man trouble even if he’s in great shape, and McGee wasn’t.
It didn’t stop him from trying. He kept walking doggedly, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. I climbed past him, jumping to reach higher ground, but they don’t teach that trick to NCR troops, or anybody else, it seems. His legs kept pumping. He wasn’t making any progress; with single-minded determination he kept going, almost like a machine.
It was disturbing, like watching someone on a treadmill, but somebody who firmly believes he’s making progress. Rex ran up to him, gave him a concerned sniff.
“Hello,” McGee said. And then he said it again. And again.
He wouldn’t stop. It was a word devoid of any meaning. He repeated it over and over, enchanted by the syllables, like a baby that discovers that it can make a sound. Again, I felt the hair on my neck stirring.
Rex bumped the back of his legs with his nose — friendly or concerned, who can tell? McGee turned around. I don’t know what happened — McGee didn’t shove Rex, or anything, he just turned around. Suddenly, the dog went down the steep slope, flying through the air, every limb as stiff as a stick. At the bottom of the slope, he hit the ground, looked around, then went around to sniff some bushes like nothing happened. McGee turned uphill again and resumed his efforts. He still wasn’t getting anywhere. I was grateful that he was quiet.
Then suddenly, slowly, very slowly, McGee started to make progress. Somehow, he made it to the top. He didn’t look at me, didn’t stop trying to move; he just kept going with that single-minded determination. It was the poison, or if it wasn’t, I didn’t want to know what it was.
After that, things got easier. We walked along the top of that hill for a while, then went down past Helios One. I knew we were going for Camp Forlorn hope now — the power plant was under NCR control, but that wasn’t where McGee was going. The sun was setting, and the desert air turned cool. As darkness crept across the Wasteland, the glow from Rex’s brain, secure under the transparent unbreakable plasteel dome on the top of his head, seemed to become more pronounced.
McGee didn’t seem to care if it was night or day. But he was getting worse. There was a huge boulder on his path, and McGee just kept walking like he didn’t even see it, trying to make it through it. I had to gently shove him past the thing, kind of force him to take a couple of sidesteps, just to get him going again. What he was thinking, what the poison was doing to his mind, I have no way of knowing, but he didn’t say anything, and he kept putting one foot in front of the other.
When we reached the highway, Rex started growling. Looking up, I saw four Caesar’s Legion assassins bearing down on us.
“Fuck,” I breathed. It was my own fault; I’d been too concerned with McGee to stay alert. You get sloppy, you get dead. The Mojave is like that. They didn’t give a shit about McGee; this was personal. Ever since the great Caesar offered me his hand in friendship and I spat on it, I’d been running into guys like these. McGee could’ve stayed out of it, but injured or not, he was an NCR soldier, and these were his enemies. His rifle started cracking, and it was on.
These were tough guys, no mistake. I stood side by side with McGee, bullets and plasma bolts whizzing past our heads, his rounds chipping away at the armored bodies, my laser flicking at them, burning away protective layers, both eager to reach the flesh beneath. It was a bad fight. Rex got knocked out early on; he charged into the middle of them again, and they took him down, four on one. Veronica went down, too, trying to dodge their fire and get in range for the power fist to work its magic. I didn’t have time to worry about them; it was a stand-up fight, the two of us against the four assassins, in the middle of the highway, no real cover, no nothing, just a mad attempt to keep moving and firing.
For me and the assassins, anyway. McGee just stood there, the rifle at his shoulder, popping away one shot after another with preternatural calm, only the feverish look in his eyes betraying the havoc the poison was still wreaking on his body. I don’t know what it was like in his head at that moment, what kind of nightmares that poison was cooking up for him, but the rifle never wavered. I was sure he was done for. He was so weak, all it would take was one hit, and he just stood his ground. But they didn’t hit him. He didn’t get a scratch. We put them all down, hard, and I paid a price; if it hadn’t been for the stimpacks, that would’ve been it for me. Veronica and Rex made it, too, if only by the skin of their teeth. It could’ve ended badly.
McGee? He just slung the rifle back on his shoulder and started walking again, pain or no pain, poison or no poison, like nothing had happened.
We patched ourselves up the best we could, moved on after him.
It got worse. We were getting close, now, but Camp Forlorn Hope — they know how to name these fucking places, don’t they? — was on the other side of a big thing that was more than a hill and less than a mountain, and we could’ve gone around it, but McGee just headed straight up the damn incline.
Until he hit a yucca tree and got tangled up in the branches. It was like the boulder, earlier, but he was caught in it. I couldn’t steer him away with those gentle pushes I’d used before, but I wasn’t eager to put my hands on him, either — I’d seen him in action, and I didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings. With the poison in him, who knew how he’d take it?
He was tangled in there good, trying to keep going. In the end, I started doing these body checks to get him going again. I didn’t know what else to do.
Suddenly, he stopped moving and looked right at me. I held my breath — I didn’t know how this was going to go. I wanted to put my hand on my rifle, but I didn’t want to provoke him. Then he spoke.
“The Ranger vets are on their way from Baja. Never seen one before. But I’ve heard they chew nails and spit napalm.”
And he chuckled. He didn’t sound amused, or convinced that the Ranger vets were as shit hot as everybody said they were; it was a dry sound, devoid of humor. He’d been promised things before. He knew how much words cost.
And he stepped away from the tree, neatly ducking past the branches, and continued shambling up the hill.
As we got closer to the camp, I started to relax. There were patrols here; we were unlikely to run into anything nasty. But there was a final obstacle, a rock face way too steep for him to climb in his condition. He tried, of course. God, he tried, but this was not a thing he could do. I was finally about ready to grab him, knock him out if I had to, anything, and then it happened. I was looking right at him, and he was on the bottom of the rock face, and then, he wasn’t there at all, and then, somehow, he was on the top of it. In front of my own two eyes, this happened, I swear.
Once I got over my amazement, I clambered up after him — not an easy thing for me, either, even with the jumping and all, never mind a badly wounded man packed to the gills with radscorpion poison — and there it was, Camp Forlorn Hope.
At 3:30 in the morning, on the dot, he stumbled in there. The guard on the post said nothing, just stared as he went past. He stumbled once, almost falling against some barrels next to an ancient wrecked bus, where Quartermaster Mayes liked to sleep. It made a hell of a racket, but Mayes didn’t even stir.
He crossed the little stream they have there, and there, in a little clearing between the buildings, in the middle of the night, stood Lieutenant Hayes. Sergeant McGee walked up to him, took up his place next to the man, and straightened up, stood at ease, and didn’t move. He’d made it. The son of a bitch had made it. Nobody said a goddamn thing. The two men didn’t even look at each other.
I had to talk to him. Well, wouldn’t you?
He turned to me, looked at me with those eyes that had seen things I couldn’t even imagine, a man driven by impulses that would always be alien to me. The hardest man I’ve ever known. He spoke.
“What is it?”
I stared into his eyes, in awe or in disgust, I don’t know which. There was nothing I could say to him, nothing he wanted to say to me. I took a deliberate step back, keeping my eyes on his. Something passed between us. An understanding.
“Sir,” he said, in the exact same tone of voice as before, with no trace of pain.
He was here. He was with his own. There was nothing he needed from me.
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