“And that’s the story of how Diamond City’s tap water tasted like Nuka-Cola for two whole months.”
“And the perps? What ever happened to them?”
“Well, Security made them spend time in lockup, but it wasn’t nearly as long as what most illegal dumpers serve, seeing as they were just kids.”
I chuckled and took a sip of my beer. That story I hadn’t heard before. I thought I had every tale Piper had ever told me seared into memory, but every so often, she would surprise me with something new. Sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny, sometimes outright strange. She truly had led a full life.
“So how ‘bout you? What kind of bold and exciting stories do you have from before?”
“Hm.” I swallowed. “Well… none of them seem nearly as outrageous as what you just told me. I’ve never caught any illegal dumpers or been poisoned or nearly executed… Um… I’m gonna have to get back to you on that.”
“Hmph. Alright, but if you’re holding out on me, I will have some form of revenge.”
We both tilted our heads back and let the last of our beers drain into our mouths. Suddenly, Piper started coughing and gasping. Once she had caught her breath, she had an odd expression on her face as she scrutinized me.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah…” She gave a final cough and set her glass down. “… I don’t… Blue, my memory might be funny from the alcohol, but I don’t remember ever telling you about an execution.”
I froze and didn’t answer. My mind raced. Had she actually told me about the Children of Atom near-execution in this life? Or was I mixing it up with the last one? The one where we went to Malden and got ambushed by synths, where the last thing I had seen was the glow of an incoming laser, before the feeling of cold had overwhelmed me and for the twenty-fifth time, I heard the words ‘critical failure in cryogenic array’.
“Um… yeah… yeah, you did… the Children of Atom were going to toss you into a pipe?… And you shouted ‘Atom, he reveals himself!’?”
“Oh. So I did.”
I looked down into my glass, watched the amber puddle and sparse foam drift about. I should’ve felt bad, making Piper second-guess herself like that. But I didn’t. Maybe I was getting used to it. After all, I had done it before. There wasn’t-
I looked up at Piper. She was staring at me intently.
“I never told you about that.” She said it with such certainty, I was startled. “How did you know?”
I didn’t answer. If I told her, this might turn out to be a time where she doesn’t believe me. There had been a time, my sixteenth or seventeenth, where Piper flat-out accused me of being a synth spy. Security pointing their guns at me had been the last thing I saw before I awoke again in the pod.
“Not going to answer?” she said, her voice tinged with aggression.
“If I do, you might not believe me.”
“Strange things happen out here, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“This tops them all.”
I took a pause. In this life, she might think I was pitching a story idea instead of the truth. She might get angry, think I was lying, and leave me. I didn’t want that to happen, because there was good reason for my staying with her for twenty-five lives.
In nine of my past lives, Piper and I had gotten to a point where saying ‘I love you’ was a regular thing. Where we would greet each other with kisses, clasp hands and reassure each other that we were okay after a fight with raiders or mutants. Seven of those nine lives, we would wake up next to each other. We would scoot closer and share warmth between our bare bodies. She had a large text tattoo all down her right thigh, an excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle about getting up and seeking truth, while leaving behind the comforts of home and ignorance. But then, if I told her that as an attempt at proof, she may believe I was spying on her while dressing. In this life, my twenty-fifth, I had never even seen her bare arms, let alone lower body. How do you speak to someone who is virtually an acquaintance in one instance, when you knew them so intimately in another?
“Silent treatment? Really?”
“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to figure out how to deliver this.”
“Lay it on me when you do.”
“I think we should go somewhere a little more private.” I slapped some caps down on the counter.
Once outside, we stood near Earl Sterling’s house. Or rather, the house that used to belong to Earl Sterling.
“… Have you heard of something called a time loop?”
“Where you repeat something again and again?”
“That’s what I’m going through right now. Except it lasts for a whole year. Or until I die.”
“Uh-huh, right.” She crossed her arms.
“First time it happened, the last thing I saw was the back of that Concord deathclaw’s throat, then I woke up back in that pod. Second time, I made it to Diamond City and met you, but when we went to rescue Nick, I was shot full of holes by Malone’s men. Third time… do you know why Boston Common is so dangerous?”
“There’s a goddamn behemoth in that pond called Swan. Third time, we tried to cut across the grass to the station and woke him up. He tore off your arm, then picked me up and ate me, legs first. For a full minute, I was nothing but an upper body. Piper, I saw my own intestines. And then, I woke up back in that pod, in one piece, everything attached. I stayed in the vault for an entire week, too afraid to go out. But when I did, we were pretty successful with getting Nick. You see where I’m going with this?”
Piper was silent. Her eyes were huge and her lips slightly parted. She blinked and seemed to realize that I had asked her a question.
“How… I… Blue… How ma-… How many times have you died?”
“Eighteen. But I’ve lived… this is my twenty-fifth life right now.”
“… I don’t understand…”
“I’ve died eighteen times. But six times, I was able to live an entire year. Then, on my emergence anniversary, I woke up back in that pod.”
“… Wait… how many times did you…” She rubbed her face and breathed deeply, processing what I said. I felt some small amount of relief that she wasn’t turning on her heel and leaving me.
“… How many times have we traveled together?”
“Counting this one, twenty-four times. You’ve told me about the Atom execution, the poison by the fake bartender, your childhood settlement, and pretty much every story you’ve ever published.”
“… So even if we make it to the end of the year… It just starts all over again. And I’ll forget you.”
“Whoa… This is nuts…”
“Tell me about it.”
I got the urge to quote Piper’s tattoo, just to show what we were in nine of my lives. But it would have put her in an awkward spot, to know that we were intimate in other times.
“… I have questions.”
“Feel free to-”
“Did we ever get inside the Boston Public Library?” The horrified look was gone from her face, replaced by excited curiosity.
“Was there ever a time where we were able to arrest Doc Crocker without him committing suicide?”
“Do you know what was in that sewer we almost went into once? I remember I wanted to go in there, but you dragged me away.”
“What’s down there?”
“You really don’t want to know.”
“Well, NOW I really do want to know!”
“… A serial killer from before the war.”
The excitement melted. “… What?”
“The Fens Street Sewer Phantom. We went down there once. Just once. You refused to go anywhere underground after that. Subway stations, vaults, you avoided all of them after that venture. Even if there was something in them we needed, you chose to wait outside.”
“I… It was that bad?”
“Worse than anything you can imagine.”
Piper was a little hesitant after that, but she continued asking questions about where we had gone, what we had done, who we had met. I answered all of them to the best of my ability. I could tell she wanted to ask about some of my deaths, but she was doing her best to refrain from that area. Finally, she approached a topic I was unprepared for.
“Did you ever fall in love in any of your lives?”
“Uh… u-um… yes.”
I didn’t answer, but I met her eyes and held her gaze. Slowly, her expression changed to one of shock.
“Oh,” she whispered.
“’Though I travel to the ends of the earth,’” I said softly. “’I find the same accursed system—I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! And therefore I cannot rest, I cannot be silent; therefore I cast aside comfort and happiness, health and good repute—and go out into the world and cry out the pain of my spirit!’… Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. Nineteen oh six.”
A sharp intake of breath from Piper. In the dim light cast from the Dugout’s sign and entrance, I could see her cheeks grow darker and darker.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured.
“It’s… okay. It’s just something from… when you… It’s just something you knew from… another life.”
“… Nine others.”
“Nine? Wow…” she breathed. “… Did we ever… break up in any of those?”
“… Come to think of it, no. It was… very good. Great, even.”
I nodded, remembering those nine lives.
At Christmas, I’d give Piper a handful of books I had salvaged from the library and see her face light up. I’d get up at three in the morning and find her awake at her desk, concentrating on a new article. I’d play with her hair. She surprised me often with messy, inexperienced kisses. She’d unintentionally leave smudges of ink on me and everywhere else around our home. All of it was so familiar, and yet here, in this life, we had known each other for only two months. All of those experiences meant nothing to Piper and were only memories for me.
“Well then,” Piper said in an effort to ease the awkwardness. “It must’ve been really something.”
I couldn’t stop a tender, wistful smile from crossing my face as I looked upon her.
“It was.” I felt the smile drop as soon as I said that. “But it’s just going to keep being erased. Over. And over. And over. And over again. I’m not sure how much longer I can stand waking up in that pod without losing my mind. And if I do… I’m not sure what I’ll do.”
I looked up at the sky. The stars were out. The first time out of the vault, I thought there had never been anything more beautiful. Now, they seemed almost mocking.
Something brushed my hand and fingers entwined with my own. Piper smiled at me in her fond, lopsided way.
“Something like that… it sounds like hell. But I’m willing to help you for now. Those nine lives, Blue, the way you look when you think about them is real sweet… I know I can’t do much to ease how painful it is to wake up back there. But… for now why don’t we make the most of our time? I’d like to hear about how it is you stole my heart. And the adventures we’ve had.”
Piper grinned and chuckled.
She was right. It was agonizing waking up back in One Eleven every time I died or lived three hundred sixty-five days, but enjoying the time I had right now seemed like the best way to cope. We sat outside the Dugout and I began to tell her about our journeys throughout the Commonwealth for twenty-two lives and the little things we had done for each other for nine.