Fallout 4 fanfiction: “Frozen”

This is part of a series based on my first playthrough of Fallout 4. These stories don’t include the entire quest of the Sole Survivor but are a collection of significant moments that supplement the game with role-playing, headcanon and backstory.

“Frozen” is about how Fiona found Mary Abernathy’s locket, became a Minuteman, hooked up with Sturges, and decided not to use Preston as a traveling companion.

Language, violence, romance.

2,200 words

Frozen

Fiona went with Preston to a nearby settlement for bullets and seeds but they returned with some terrible news.

“Raiders attacked Abernathy farm,” Preston told Sturges when they returned to Sanctuary Hills. “Robbed them and killed their daughter Mary.”

“That’s a damn shame.” Sturges shook his head. “A damn shame.”

Fiona had thawed out in a cold, cruel world. “Why? Why would they do that?” She paced the narrow carport that had become Sturges’ workshop.

“Because they’re raiders,” said Preston, with an impatient edge to his voice. “Scum like that prey on the hardworking people of the Commonwealth. The Abernathys needed the Minutemen.”

“Better make sure we’re ready if those raiders head our way.” Sturges put out his hand. “Lemme see your gun.”

She gave him her 10mm. He inspected and cleaned it at the workbench while they talked.

“The Abernathy’s should move here,” said Fiona. “There’s plenty of room.”

“Is there room for everyone in the Commonwealth?” Preston asked and then answered himself. “No, we need to help people defend their homes. The only way to do that is to rebuild the Minutemen, and that means showing people that they can count on us when they need us. Will you help?” Preston looked at her.

“Help you do what?”

“Find those murderers and Mary’s locket. Bring her family a little justice.”

The justice she knew involved due process, a court, law and order. Those things didn’t exist any more.

“I believe in justice but I’m no Minuteman.”

“There’s a dead deathclaw and some dead raiders in Lexington that say different.” Preston tugged on the lapels of his colonial style duster. “You might not have a uniform but you came to our defense at a minute’s notice.”

“Who’s going to look for my son if something happens to me?”

Preston and Sturges exchanged glances. They didn’t think she’d find Shaun alive, if she found him at all. She refused to give up hope. Hope was all she had.

“And what if something happens to you because we don’t deal with the raiders?” said Preston.

Images played in her mind, like a movie reel she couldn’t turn off, of the scarred man who killed her husband and took their son. Gunners killed Jun and Marcy’s son. Raiders killed Blake and Connie’s daughter. Too many children gone, too many families torn apart.

She realized she had more than hope. She had hope and fury.

“Fine. I’ll go. But we’re taking Dogmeat and the Cryolator.”

Fiona picked up the strange weapon from Vault 111.

“Remember to aim a little high,” said Sturges. He’d improved and tested the weapon on a wild mongrel sniffing too close to the settlement. Froze the animal to death. There were only a few dozen cryo cells and he hadn’t figured out how to make more ammo, but she wanted any advantage she could get.

They still had the ridiculously-named “minigun” from the crashed vertibird in Concord. Nothing “mini” about it, the military had used the huge Gatling-style weapon during the war and it was almost impossible to heft without power armor. The T-45 suit from the roof of the museum had just enough juice to move it to Sturges’ workshop but it wouldn’t get far without another fusion core. She’d also used most of the ammo on that deathclaw Preston mentioned. So the minigun would have to stay behind.

“According to Blake Abernathy, the raiders came from a satellite station,” said Preston.

“There’s one to the east, not far from here,” she said. “Or at least there used to be, a couple centuries ago. That might be it.”

“We’ll check it out. Grab what you need and meet me across the bridge.” Preston rushed off to update Mama Murphy.

She gathered ammo and the few stimpaks they had. Sturges handed back her gun.

“Be careful, alright?”

She holstered the weapon. “I will.”

“Ever since Quincy, I don’t think Preston’s been sleeping much. If a body can’t sleep, it can’t think straight. Don’t let him get you killed.”

“I don’t plan on it.” Fiona rubbed a dark smear of something off his stubbled chin. “Grease monkey.”

He smiled. “Popsicle.”

They’d slept in the same bed the night before, held each other, nothing more. She put her hands on his shoulders.

Carpe diem, right, Nate? Seize the day. Or…

“Carpe homo habilis.” Seize the handyman. She laughed at her own joke.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing, just the language of a useless education. Kiss me.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes.”

Sturges wrapped his hands around her waist. He moved slow and careful, just the way he fixed a generator or cleaned a gun, not in a rush but doing the job right. It felt good to be held close, to feel his mouth on hers. He smelled like gun oil and sweat.

Fiona recalled Nate’s frozen hand, the one she held when she removed his wedding ring, and pushed the thought from her mind. That wasn’t the way he would want to be remembered.

* * *

She walked with Preston and Dogmeat through the eerie ruins of her old life. They followed the edge of the lake without hearing a single bird, voice, radio or car, just the sound of their boots in the dirt. He acted like he had a patrol of Minutemen behind him, confident as a security guard in a parking garage with his shoulders back and his two-way radio clipped to his shoulder.

Fiona followed, pistol drawn and neck swiveling like a deranged owl scanning for signs of movement. Without power armor, she only had road leathers and a few bits of leather and metal padding to protect her, so she wanted to be quiet and careful.

They climbed the rocky hill at the end of the lake and crouched behind some brush. She could see the huge satellite dish and a crashed military vertibird nearby.

Preston looked through the scope of his laser musket. “There’s two guards and a dog.”

“Are you sure they’re raiders? I don’t want to shoot innocent people.”

“They’re raiders alright. I’ve seen enough of them to know.”

“And not Gunners?”

The tone of his voice changed. “Seen enough of those, too.”

Fiona touched his arm in a small gesture of comfort and Preston flinched.

She removed her hand. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m just… tense, I guess.”

Fiona heard shouts and gunfire. Preston raised his musket and peered through the scope again.

“Looks like they’re fighting … molerats.”

She’d met a few of those at the Red Rocket fuel station where she found Dogmeat. They were big, hairless rodents with a mean streak.

She saw a flash and heard an explosion. “What was that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they have molotovs?”

“Oh, Jesus H. Christ. C’mon.”

Preston and Dogmeat followed her, keeping the trees between them and the distracted raiders. She crouched behind cover, aimed the 10mm, fired several shots and reloaded while Dogmeat dealt with the last of the molerats. Silence fell as the sun dropped below the horizon.

Preston kneeled beside her. “See? You did great.”

She wiped her sweaty hands on her pants. “Don’t start handing out medals, we still need to get inside.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

While he searched the exterior, she checked to make sure the raiders were dead. They dressed like the assholes in Concord, but with burlap hoods covering their heads, and smelled like a sewer.

Preston found a door into the facility and they headed down a ramp covered in debris and filth. Dogmeat whimpered and she rubbed his neck for reassurance as they inched forward. Then she saw a glint of red light and grabbed the tail of Preston’s coat.

“Don’t move,” she ordered in a whisper.

He backed away from the laser tripwire at his feet. “Thanks. That was close.”

He crouched and fiddled with something on the wall. Her heart leaped in her chest when she heard a click and the red light disappeared. She held her breath for a couple seconds and only exhaled when she didn’t hear an alarm, get blown to bits, or see any raiders running toward them.

“They’re easy enough to disarm so long as you see them before you set them off. Probably connected to this.” He pointed to a device in the ceiling.

They entered a room with some broken filing cabinets, a desk and a working computer. Preston approached a secured, metal door.

“Could be something useful in there.”

She spoke in a whisper and wished Preston would, too. “If it was useful, wouldn’t the raiders be using it already?”

“Only if they could open the door. We should try the terminal.”

“Or we might just do what we came to do, before we get ourselves killed.”

She gestured to three windows, without glass, through which they could see catwalks suspended above a large command center. They crouched and crept forward. Peeking over the windowsill, she counted three raiders.

From the hallway to the left she heard a barking dog.

“Shit.” She raised her pistol as Dogmeat ran to intercept the other animal.

A raider rounded the corner, gun drawn. He spotted them and shouted, “Oh, hell, no!”

Fiona aimed at his chest and fired twice. The raider fell.

“They know we’re here now.” She shot into the main room. The raiders shot back. Preston just sat there. “Preston! A little help?”

“Right. I’m on it.” He cranked his laser musket and fired a wild beam of red light that hit a filing cabinet.

She heard shouts from the hall to the right and darted over to take a look. More raiders at the bottom of the stairs.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Dogmeat ran past her and jumped down the steps, snarling as he locked his teeth around the arm of a guy wearing little more than stained long johns and duct tape. She used her Pip-Boy’s targeting system, emptied a clip and ducked back behind the wall to reload. Preston continued shooting and she wondered if he hit anyone at all because they were still shooting back.

She heard the fierce patter of a rapid-fire weapon and Dogmeat yelped. Poking her head out again, she saw a woman awkwardly toting a minigun toward the stairs.

Must have got it from the crashed bird outside, same way I got one in Concord.

Fiona holstered the pistol, swung the Cryolator off her back and pelted the pigtailed piece of shit with ice crystals. The minigun’s spray of bullets chipped the walls in bursts of plaster around her and hit Fiona’s right leg like a jackhammer. She retreated behind the edge of the wall and blood pooled at her feet.

This is not where I die!

Her head spun. Fiona clenched her jaw, yanked a stimpak out of the pouch at her belt and slammed the needle into her thigh. The pain eased, replaced by a kind of tingling feeling, similar to fizz of carbonation in a Nuka Cola. Her head cleared.

The raider was frozen for the moment but not dead, struggling to move but still swearing at her. Fiona switched to her 10mm and unloaded as she limped down the stairs.

The minigun hit the ground with a heavy, metallic crash.

“That’s for Mary Abernathy, you piece of shit.”

She used a stimpak on Dogmeat, who ran off to help Preston while she wiped her bloody hands on the raider’s tattered coat.

They searched the facility and found Mary’s locket, a fusion core, and a few stimpaks. Fiona took an army helmet off the skeleton of a long-dead sergeant and put it on. They loaded up their packs with weapons, ammo, food, and anything else they thought they could use, and hauled it back to Sanctuary Hills.

Preston gushed the whole way about her shooting skills, the tripwire she spotted, the key she found to unlock the storage room, and the future of the Minutemen.

Fiona said nothing until they reached the settlement. She promised Preston they would take the locket to Abernathy Farm in the morning, dropped her loot in the middle of Sturges’ workshop and went straight to the bathroom, where she washed away the blood with water and tears.

She didn’t cry for the killing. Killing got easier every time. It was either her or them, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be her, and that’s all there was to that. She didn’t cry for the pain. The stimpak took care of that and her limp was already gone.

She cried for the death of the person she used to be and the world that was gone forever. Who was she now? Who would she have to become to survive, to find Shaun and kill the bastard who took her husband’s life?

Not just a lawyer anymore but judge, jury and executioner. A fighter, like Nate.

A Minuteman.

The tears came harder and faster, until the shower tank ran out of water. She was wet, naked and shivering, and she didn’t care. Everywhere in the wasteland desperation stood bare, why should she be any different?

When Sturges wrapped a blanket around her, Fiona kissed him. He was solid and warm and she kissed him all the way to the bedroom, where he shrugged off the straps of his overalls and she pulled his t-shirt over his head. He was broad and muscular like Nate, but he made love gentle and quiet, and not like Nate at all.

* * *

~ J.L. Hilton

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Part 1: MacCready’s Lucky Cap – MacCready meets Daisy & leaves the Gunners
Part 2: A Home No More – Fiona adjusts to life in the Commonwealth wasteland
Part 3: MacCready Meets the Mayor – MacCready arrives in Goodneighbor
Part 4: Frozen – Fiona finds a locket & joins the Minutemen
Part 5: MacCready & Hancock visit a brothel. (unwritten)
Part 6: The Mayor Meets His Match (unwritten)
Part 7: The General Helps MacCready (unwritten)
Part 8: MacCready’s Wooden Soldier – Fiona & MacCready’s first kiss
Part 9: Wanton Wasteland: Hangman’s Alley – ADULTS ONLY The ghoulified mayor of Goodneighbor indulges in whiskey and voyeurism
Part 10: Happy Birthday, Fiona – Hancock deals with unrequited lust that just might be love
Part 11: Last Goodbye – Fiona rides a molecular relay & leaves her friends behind (unfinished)
Part 12: The Eve of Destruction – Hancock helps Fiona cope with the stresses of leadership

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Try-It Tuesday: FE

FE is a 2018 release from Zoink, the makers of Zombie Vikings and Flipping Death. I loved Zombie Vikings and played all the way through last summer. I wanted to like Flipping Death but did one live stream and couldn’t get into it. So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play FE but it went on sale for $4.99 and I decided to try it.

In the style of Journey or Flower, it’s an experience of moody environmental storytelling without dialog. While the other two Zoink games were side-scrollers, FE is more of an open world adventure.

The main character, controlled in 3rd person POV, is a small creature similar to a fox or squirrel who can jump, swim, climb trees, pick up objects, ride larger creatures, hide in bushes, and sing. Singing, and learning new songs, seems to be the core game mechanic.

While there aren’t hidden object games or literal jigsaw puzzles to solve, FE is a puzzle game. It is very much about exploring, finding clues and figuring out how to use the environment to achieve goals.

The graphics are also very different from the other Zoink games. I loved the art style in Zombie Vikings and Flipping Death but I don’t really care for the visuals in FE. Not just because of personal taste but because I found the geometric angles and “black light” color scheme difficult to navigate.

A word of advice if you’re going to play FE, the title screen says “options” but doesn’t offer much more than volume controls. Press the “options” button on the PS4 controller while actually playing the game and you’ll get a bigger menu. If you’re like me and need to invert the Y-axis, this is where you’ll do that.

FE is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Origin for PC. It’s rated “E” for everyone. The only ESRB warning is “mild fantasy violence.”

~ J.L. Hilton

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Try-It Tuesday: TITANFALL 2

This week I played TITANFALL 2, a first-person shooter developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts. It’s a 2016 sequel to the game Titanfall (2014), available for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

I spent most of my time in the tutorial, learning the game controls, trying out various weapons, and collecting batteries for my Titan, a souped-up version of power armor with its own AI.

This stream was my first ever on Twitch and I later uploaded an edited video to YouTube. I may continue following this format for all of my Try-It Tuesdays in the future.

TITANFALL 2 is science fiction, if you hadn’t already guessed, with multiplayer modes and a single-player campaign that follows the story of Jack Cooper, voiced by Matthew Mercer (MacCready in Fallout 4). He’s a rifleman in the Frontier Militia, which seemed similar to the Browncoats of Firefly and Serenity.

I had a really good time and would play the hell out of TITANFALL 2 if it didn’t have all the parkour platformer double jumps and wall-running. I know a lot of players love that stuff but it’s not something I enjoy. Oh, well.

 TITANFALL 2 is rated “M” for “mature” adults, due to blood and gore, language and violence.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Some sad news

Please note, this post contains references to domestic violence, child abuse and animal cruelty. 

My dad died today, on his 74th birthday. Ten days ago, on my birthday, he fell, hit his head, and went into a coma from which he never woke.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my dad introduced me to science fiction, computers, kung fu, video games and Dungeons & Dragons. He bought a Darth Vader helmet and made a costume by dying his old army fatigues black and making a chest piece in the garage. He used to play princesses with me. I would run down the hall, lose a shoe like Cinderella, and then fall into bed like Sleeping Beauty, and he would wake me with a kiss.

He had an incredible imagination and a great sense of humor. He gave me treasure hunts, art lessons, board games, card games, dances and songs. He loved to sing. He taught me to read and write before I entered kindergarten. He brought home pieces of colored wire from work so I could make bracelets and rings when I was 8 years old.

In so many ways, I am my father’s daughter. But not in every way.

I wish I could say I’ll miss him but he was an abuser who also collected guns, Nazi paraphernalia and anti-Catholic comic books along with his Star Wars memorabilia.

As a kid, I had black eyes, bruises, and a broken ear drum. I’ve watched him hit my mom, beat my yelping dog, knock over my sister in her high chair, kick his mother, and threaten to get a gun and shoot us. He was highly controlling, always right, and accepted nothing less than perfection and total obedience. To disagree or disappoint him was to risk a beating and/or setting off a tantrum that would result in family members and pets being abused and household objects broken. He could be enraged by something as little as a speck of paper on the floor, a towel folded incorrectly, or not eating every bite on your plate at meal times.

“You’ll understand someday when you have kids of your own,” is the old saying. Well, I have kids – one of whom is an adult now – and I still don’t understand my father. I would never treat my kids the way he treated his and I have a spouse who’s never behaved like that. Before I married, I dated plenty of people who didn’t terrify me, throw temper tantrums or break things, no matter how bad their day might be or what they were going through.

This is not a eulogy for him but a message for anyone who’s experienced something like this and needs to know they’re not alone.

If you or someone you love is being abused, please seek help. If you think your life or someone else’s life is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

If you hurt the people you love, if you use anger and physical violence to control others, please seek help.

If you have experienced abuse in the past and have depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, IBS, risky sexual behaviors, addiction, autoimmune disorders or other difficulties linked to abuse, I hope you are getting the help that you need.

If you’re not sure where to start, try MentalHealth.gov or talk to your doctor.

I’ll also write this for anyone who thinks “he can’t be an abuser, he’s such a nice guy.” It’s not fun to think that someone you know is capable of doing bad things. But I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely possible to be both kind and cruel, humorous and horrifying, friendly and an utter fucking shithead. It is possible to be a co-worker, a friend, a family member AND an abuser.

“I know there is good in you,” Luke Skywalker told his dad. Unfortunately, as far as I know, my dad never had a Darth Vader moment of redemption. The last thing I remember him saying to me was “fucking bitch” and we never spoke again. That was exactly 23 years ago.

I don’t need to hear that he’s “the only dad you’ll ever have” or that I should forgive him. I’ve done the therapy with professionals and I’ve spent my entire life dealing with this, in one way or another. I know he struggled with his own demons and he wasn’t healthy in mind or body. Doesn’t mean I should have continued to subject myself or my own children to an abusive person.

Something else I don’t want or need is sympathy and I don’t want to be told how “strong” I am. I’m not. Yes, I got through it, but what choice did I have? This bullshit weakened me, weakened me badly. I left as soon as I could, when I turned 18, and I survived because I’m lucky. Some children aren’t.

Five children a day die in the United States from child abuse and neglect.

If you feel compelled to act in some way, to respond to what I’m saying, please contact organizations that help victims of domestic violence and work to prevent child abuse. Don’t contact me. I am not comfortable talking about this. Most people, even my friends and family, don’t know what I’ve been through.

But if I can stop the cycle of abuse for one other person, if I can help someone else get through the day knowing they’re not alone, if I can prevent someone out there from being an asshole to their own kids, if I can raise a $1 to help the estimated 10 million people who are abused by an intimate partner every year in the U.S., then it needs to be said and it might as well be today.

Happy birthday, dad. Rest in peace.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Try-It Tuesday: FISHING MASTER

This week’s game is dedicated to one of my viewers who’s become a good friend, “Michael” aka Jesikebiking. He has a YouTube channel where he shares his real-life steampunk bicycles and his Fallout 4 settlement builds.

I know how much he likes fishing so I wanted to show him FISHING MASTER where he can fish right in his own home. There are 200 different species of fish with unique behaviors and more than 50 fishing tools. In the free demo, I fished under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay. The full game adds the Alps and Arctic Ocean fishing spots.

FISHING MASTER is rated “E” for everyone but the PSVR is not for use by children under the age of 12. PlayStation®VR, PlayStation®Camera and one PS®Move controller required to play.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Try-It Tuesday: THE CURSED HEART

This week I played another gem from Artifex Mundi, NIGHTMARES FROM THE DEEP: THE CURSED HEART. This is the first game in the Nightmares From the Deep series, released in 2012.

In THE CURSED HEART, modern-day museum curator Sarah Black stows away on a haunted ship to rescue her daughter from the fearsome centuries-old Captain Remington. There are various puzzles and hidden object games, all with a lovely ghost pirate theme rich in skulls, treasure and sea creatures similar to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that spanned 2003-2011.

I played the free PlayStation4 demo. The game is also available for PC, Xbox One and mobile phones. Rated “T” for teens due to alcohol references, blood and gore, mild violence, and use of tobacco.

Try-it Tuesday NIGHTMARES FROM THE DEEP 3: DAVY JONES

~ J.L. Hilton

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Try-It Tuesday: BLUE ESTATE THE GAME

BLUE ESTATE is a “darkly funny on-rail shooter,” based on the graphic novel from Viktor Kalvachev, developed by He-Saw, and published by Focus Home Interactive. It looked interesting so I played the free demo this week on PlayStation 4.

The full game offers story and arcade modes, a two-player local cooperative option, and “normal,” “abnormal” or “crazytrain” difficulty settings. BLUE ESTATE uses the gyroscopic features of the PlayStation 4 controller and Kinect sensor on Xbox One. On PC, it’s played with the keyboard / mouse, traditional USB gamepads, Leap Motion or light guns.

“On rails” means I couldn’t control my path through the environment. Like riding a roller coaster or train, I could look around and sometimes grab things — like ammo or health packs — but couldn’t back up, explore or choose my own path as the game moved me forward. The main elements here are story, shooting, and occasional quick-time-events where I swiped the touchpad on the PS4 controller.

BLUE ESTATE earns its “M” for mature rating, with lots of blood, violence, drug references, crude humor, sexual themes and partial nudity.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Try-It Tuesday: FLIPPING DEATH

Now that I’ve finished Horizon Zero Dawn, I’ve started Try-It Tuesdays again. This week, I played FLIPPING DEATH by Zoink Games, makers of Zombie Vikings.

Watch a bit of my Zombie Vikings playthrough

FLIPPING DEATH is about Penny, a young woman who fills in while Death takes a vacation. The environment is a 2-D-ish side-scroller with the world of the dead on one side and the world of the living on the other. You flip back and forth between the two sides to solve mysteries and help people.

The puzzle part of FLIPPING DEATH is clever but maybe a bit too obscure. I’ve played a lot of point-and-click puzzle adventures and usually there’s some sense to them – locks need keys, hidden objects need finding, devices need batteries, etc. But in FLIPPING DEATH, you do crazy things like painting a boat with a man’s tongue or making a seagull poop in a pot so an angry cook will shoot a meatball gun at a wiener dog.

Following a weird, Rube Goldberg-like chain of events might sound fun, but mostly it just felt like floundering around in frustration. There are hints available in the options menu but they aren’t very useful when clunky game controls get in the way. I’d have to do the same action twenty times to trigger a cutscene, with no idea why it worked the 20th time but not the previous nineteen. Which meant I spent nineteen tries thinking, “is this correct? am I supposed to be trying to hit a bowling ball with a tennis racket? why isn’t it working?”

I liked the humor, voice acting, music and art style, but FLIPPING DEATH also had a ton of platform jumping and timed races, which are not things I enjoy. So, this is one game I won’t be finishing.

FLIPPING DEATH came out in August 2018 and is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam. It’s rated “T” for ages teen and up, due to crude humor, drug reference, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes and use of alcohol.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Like Hammer & Steel: An Oseram Love Story

Horizon Zero Dawn inspired me to write a love story with an original drinking song called “The Slag of Furnace Bottom,” the lyrics of which are included at the end.

“Like Hammer & Steel” is about Masara, an Oseram craftwoman who impresses the Sun-King with her clever contraptions. She would prefer to have Erend’s attention but he’s in love with Aloy. Masara is an “OC,” an original character, who does not appear in the video game.

The title of this work is taken directly from a mission of the same name in Horizon Zero Dawn. When Aloy is in the Oseram village of Free Heap talking to Kaeluf, he says, “Jorgriz and Beladga are meant for each other, like hammer and steel. They just don’t realize it.”

This story takes place after Erend finds his sister but before the quest “Looming Shadow” at the end of the game.

Rated PG-13. Contains innuendo, kissing, alcohol references, and non-graphic violence.

Also available on AO3 if you prefer to read it there.

4,000 words

*  *  *

LIKE HAMMER & STEEL

“Masara!”

Erend called to her across the marketplace and she felt a blaze of emotion like a bellows blast to the heart. He barged past Carja guards, silk-clad nobles and crate-carrying couriers with all the grace of a boar in a garden — a large, magnificent boar wrapped in leather and metal.

Masara smiled at the Vanguard captain. “What can we drink to today?” she asked in greeting.

He gave the customary Oseram reply. “Your forge fires,” adding, “and a few hours of free time without scribes and courtiers in my face.”

“Is the Sun-King keeping you busy? I haven’t seen you for a few days.”

“Running me ragged, as usual.”

“You look fine to me.”

“You look… uh…” He stared at her for a moment. “Flushed. In a good way, I mean. Your cheeks are pink. Like you’ve been at the smelter. Warm today, isn’t it? You want a drink from the well?”

“I’d prefer a pint of Scrappersap.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

He walked with her from the machine scrap stalls to a fruit vendor, where she bought a wooden skewer of sliced melon.

“It will cool off soon, when the sun sets, but this also helps with the heat.”

She held a piece of fruit to his lips. When he opened his mouth to take it, she moved her hand. He tried again and she moved again, teasing him while they both laughed.

“Careful, I don’t want to bite you.” He grasped her wrist.

She felt the brush of his mustache as he took the chunk of melon from her fingers. If her cheeks were pink before, they must be bright red now, she could feel the heat in them. She yanked her hand away as if touched by hot coals and changed the subject.

“Are you going to the village inn tonight?”

He wiped juice from his chin. “Only if you’re singing ‘The Slag From Furnace Bottom‘.”

She’d met Erend in an Iron Hills tavern where they’d sang that very song. He’d been traveling from Mainspring back to Meridian after delivering his sister’s killer to the council of Ealdormen. Over a few too many drinks, they’d discussed dreams and disappointments, the derangement of machines, and the stone spires of the Sundom. To her surprise, he’d offered her a workshop of her own, one abandoned by his friend Olin in the heart of Meridian. No man had ever cared about her aspirations or her independence before. She thought it nothing more than a pub promise, until he showed up at her father’s forge the next morning, wondering why she wasn’t packed.

She fell in love with him on the spot.

But it didn’t take long to see how much he wanted to stoke Aloy’s furnace, so Masara poured her passion into her work… and other distractions.

As they ate the last few pieces of fruit, she kept an eye on a Banuk hunter who followed them at a distance. He wore a heavy fur hood, part of the traditional garb of his people from the cold north but out of place in the Sundom.

Erend saw the Banuk, too. “You know him?”

She nodded. “He wants to speak to me. Alone.”

He scowled in the Banuk’s direction. “Is he bothering you?”

She tossed the empty skewer into a brazier. “You wouldn’t worry so much if you weren’t so sober. The Banuk are very superstitious and–”

“Like the Nora?”

She sighed. She wished she could climb a Tallneck, rip the heart from a Thunderjaw with her bare hands, and fill Erend’s thoughts, like Aloy of the Nora, but Masara was only a craftwoman. At least the Banuk appreciated her talents.

“They’re intrigued by the bird I made for the Sun-King and think I’m some kind of shaman or something.”

“Intrigued enough to travel all the way from Ban-Ur just to talk to you? Should I post a guard at your workshop?”

“Depends. How handsome is the guard?”

“I’m serious, Masara. If you think you’re in any danger–”

“He’s not going to hurt me, he wants to… impress me. From what I’ve gathered, they like contests.” She lowered her voice. “They think I’m the Sun-King’s lover.”

“‘They’? There are more of them in Meridian? Just to see you?”

The idea seemed to get under his skin like a metal sliver.

“They started showing up after I gave Ramik a feather.”

Erend clenched his fists. “Who’s Ramik?”

“Another Banuk. I enjoyed his company so I gave him a metal feather when he left Meridian, as a gift, and a week later Ovinak showed up and said he wanted to ‘win’ a feather from the Birdmaker, too.”

“So, that’s Ovinak?”

“No, that’s Sammuk. Ovinak was last month.”

“Fire and blood!” Erend sputtered and fumed like wet wood in a furnace. “So just tell them you’re not the Sun-King’s lover. No more contests.”

Her smoldering frustration flared into fury. “What do you care if I spend time with the Sun-King, Sammuk or a Snapmaw?”

Masara descended the steps to the canal, where lamps lit the darkening path. She heard the jangling of Erend’s armor behind her. He caught up with her and matched her brisk pace.

“Do you actually spend time with the Sun-King when I’m not around?”

“Why would I want to join him in his cage?”

“It’s a pretty comfortable cage.”

That had been the meaning behind the contraption she created for the Sun-King, a bird cage that looked like Avad’s pavilion, containing a single mechanical bird with a crest resembling his crown. Its metal feathers and jeweled eyes sparkled in sunlight and glowed like moonlight in the dark, but it could not fly away.

Avad kept the Sunbird beside his throne, and every noble who sought an audience with His Radiance came straight to her workshop, begging for one like it. She’d started making fish, fox and rabbit mechanisms, too. For the folk in Meridian Village and the Maizelands who were not as wealthy, she made fluttering butterflies and small metal flowers. Her workshop was so busy, she’d hired other Oseram women, like herself, who wanted something more than to count shards and sweep market stalls. She felt grateful to the Sun-King, but, no, she had not taken Ersa’s place.

“Your sister was his lover, not me.”

Erend scoffed. “Like I told Aloy, he’s not Ersa’s type.”

“No, of course not, they only conquered a kingdom together. He made her captain of the Vanguard, but Ersa would have preferred poetry and flowers, she was that kind of woman.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right but–”

‘Probably?”

“She’s my sister. WAS my sister. I just don’t like thinking about her — y’know — being with somebody. That’s not the sort of thing a brother wants to think about.” He spotted the Banuk lingering near the stone steps. “Hey! Uh… Sammuk! Enough already! Your little game is over! Beat it!”

When the Banuk didn’t respond, Erend removed the war hammer from its scabbard on his back and stomped the ground like a heavy-horned Trampler about to charge.

“You hear me? I said get lost.”

“He hears you,” she whispered, “and so do the other thirty people within earshot, you dross-headed son of a smelter.”

“I accept your challenge, Vanguardsman,” Sammuk called out.

Heads turned and people came from the market to see the commotion.

“It’s not a challenge, it’s a command, from the captain of the Sun-King’s personal guards. Leave us alone. We’re trying to have a private conversation.”

“We will settle this, hammer to spear, at dawn.” Sammuk raised one thick-muscled arm and pointed south. “I will be there, by the river, just outside the village.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll find you.”

The Banuk walked away without another word, but the bystanders filled the silence with their wagging tongues.

Erend returned the hammer to his back and rubbed his hands together. “So, now what?”

Masara shrugged. “I guess you’re fighting a Banuk.”

“Bah! I could fight him and five more like him, before breakfast and not need extra bacon. I fought three Ravagers–”

“I know, you fought three Ravagers with Aloy at Dimmed Bones,” she said, repeating a line she’d heard a hundred times. “Why don’t you go protect her from the big, bad Banuk?”

“She doesn’t need me.”

“And I do?”

Challenging a man who looked like he could eat a Ravager for breakfast, that didn’t bother Erend one bit, but her words upset him.

“No, I guess you don’t. You’ve got your workshop and apparently you’re doing a lot of…” He cleared his throat. “A lot of research into Banuk culture.”

“We’re not in the Claim anymore and I’m free to do as I please.”

“You are. So, what will you do tomorrow, after I beat Sammuk?”

 If you beat Sammuk –”

“When,” Erend corrected.

“When he loses, he’ll probably leave Meridian.”

“Good.”

“But if he wins, he’ll still have to prove himself to me, if he wants a feather.”

“I have no idea what that means and I don’t want to know. But if I lose — and I’m not saying I will, because I won’t — I don’t want you to go with him.”

“I’m not getting married and moving to Ban-Ur.”

“I mean it, Masara. I don’t want you to be with him. Not even for one night.”

The look in his blue eyes made her pulse pound like a hammer.

“Then don’t lose.”

* * *

Masara didn’t sleep at all but tossed and turned, sometimes cursing Erend for a fool and sometimes desperately poring over their conversation. Did he care for her the way she cared for him or was he merely looking after her as he would a sister?

An hour before dawn, a messenger arrived with two royal guards. “You are to travel with His Radiance to the Spire,” he said.

She rushed to dress, not in her work clothes and leather apron but the rust-colored Carja silk gown she wore when she presented her gift to the Sun-King. Where the women of the Sundom would embellish with necklaces, armbands and headpieces of gold or pretty machine parts, Masara put on adornments in the Oseram style with leather straps and metal rings. She pinned up her hair with ornaments of metal butterflies, flowers and leaves, from her workshop.

They hurried her through Meridian’s twisting maze of cobbled streets, to the Palace of the Sun. The advisor Marad, Erend, and a cluster of Vanguardsmen waited on the platform behind the Sun-King’s pavilion.

She wondered if Erend managed to get any sleep. He glanced at Masara when she arrived, but when she met his gaze, he looked away. One of the Vanguard whistled and Erend barked at him to shut up. She heard a rushed apology.

Marad approached her. “Masara Craftwoman, if you would permit me, I would like to discuss the complexity of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

“We find ourselves about to watch two thick-armed barrel tossers knock the spit out of each other, and they both deserve it,” she said. “I don’t know what’s complicated about that.”

“There is much more to consider. Certain noble families and members of the court believe that Erend fights for your honor on the Sun-King’s behalf, as it would cause a political incident if His Radiance were to fight — or banish the Banuk — himself. The Banuk themselves may even believe this.”

“They can believe I’ve got a copper backside,” she said, “doesn’t make it true.”

Erend coughed. Or laughed. Or both. She couldn’t tell.

Marad replied, “How things are perceived to be true can often have greater effect than the actual truth.”

“Is something only a Carja would say,” said Masara. “But I do sincerely regret any complications I’ve caused His Radiance.”

“I prefer to turn complications into opportunities,” said Sun-King Avad, entering from his private quarters. He gestured to her. “Walk with me, Clever Masara.”

She moved to his side. Erend and Marad followed behind them. The Vanguard took positions at a respectable distance but close enough to protect the Sun-King, if required.

“Marad tells me Meridian talks of nothing but the bird maker and her lovers’ duel,” said the Sun-King as they crossed the bridge connecting the palace to the city.

“They’re not my lovers, Your Radiance.”

“No, of course not. For you are the Sun-King’s concubine. According to the rumors, I have a penchant for Oseram women.”

“In the Claim, we’d say you liked a woman with a firm grip on the hammer.”

Avad had a laugh as sedate as his speaking voice. Masara loathed the thought of being so restrained and wondered if the Sun-King had shown more feeling to Ersa.

She heard the marketplace before they reached it. Half of the city seemed to be there. Carja guards lined the streets, clearing the way for the Sun-King. Heads bowed as Avad passed, with murmurs of “Your Radiance.” Some of the Oseram cheered or called encouragement to Erend. Through all this, Masara heard the distant chanting of priests, their voices rising and falling like kites in the wind.

Yet the Sun-King conversed with her as if they were the only people in the world.

“You gave me a wondrous gift. It intrigues me more and more each day that passes.”

“I’m glad it pleases you, Your Radiance.”

“Could it be a spying device or perhaps a machine lure of some kind, like those used by Dervahl?”

“No! Steel to my soul, I would never create such a thing! I’ll destroy it right now if you doubt me.”

Her outburst seemed to amuse him. At least, he seemed as amused as she’d ever seen him. His lips curved in a slight smile.

“Stay your righteous hand, Fierce Oseram. Destroying the Sunbird would be a crime against truth, beauty and the Sun itself.”

They boarded a lift that lowered them to Meridian Village. It had just enough room for their small entourage and granted a few moments of relative quiet and privacy.

Avad spoke to her in a low, confidential tone. “If not a malicious device, then it must be a more sentimental one. But what is the nature of that sentiment, Clever Masara?”

Some, like the Banuk or the Carja nobles who bought her contraptions, thought it a romantic sentiment, and she was content to let them think so, as ridiculous as it was. But, summoned by the Sun-King himself to walk through the capital of his Sundom, it didn’t seem like a joke any longer.

“I created the Sunbird as a tribute to Your Radiance, in gratitude and appreciation for ending the Red Raids and uniting the tribes in peace.”

“Is that all?” He sounded disappointed.

The doors of the lift opened and they walked through Meridian Village. The roads here were also lined with people, but they were farmers and lower ranking citizens. A year ago, that’s where she would have been, just another soot-smeared forge-daughter with more fingers than she had shards in her pocket.

“I enjoy the challenge of creating something new,” she said. “It’s my greatest joy in life, to imagine something and to make it come true.”

Masara had hoped her words would disavow any romantic notions, but the Sun-King seemed even more encouraged. Enthusiastic, even.

“It is my greatest joy, as well, to make policies that have never been made before, to improve the lives of my people, to draw impossible peace from unthinkable pain. It is thrilling to see a dream become reality, to see plans come to fruition, is it not?”

“I make trinkets, Your Radiance. I’ve never made anything as important as decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people.”

“Erend, I didn’t think modesty possible for the Oseram.”

Erend didn’t seem to like being drawn into the conversation or perhaps his mind was on the fight. He grumbled, “We’re full of surprises.”

“Do not underestimate yourself, Clever Masara,” said the Sun-King. “Your work requires an attention to detail, an understanding of the careful balance necessary for a thing — whether a musical bird or a Sundom — to function. You have a rare and valuable talent.”

“Thank you, Your Radiance.”

If half of Meridian turned out to see the Sun-King’s procession, the other half waited along the riverbank and in the fields between Meridian and the Alight, where the Spire rose black against the dark blue sky. The Vanguard escorted them to a viewing platform prepared with seats and banners. She wondered what lucky builders had worked on that all night.

The Sun-King and Marad took their seats but Masara waited near Erend. She wanted to speak to him, but didn’t know what she should say.

Orange light lit the jagged horizon and a turquoise breath blew out the embers of the stars.

“Well, uh, I gotta go pound a guy into scrap.”

As he walked away, she blurted out, “Be the hammer, not the anvil.”

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the plan.”

Erend moved to the center of a stretch of grass, marked out by ropes and ribbons. He gripped his weapon in both hands, planted his feet and waited. She sat beside the Sun-King.

When the first red rays of the sun touched the Spire, Sammuk joined Erend in the field. She spotted several other Banuk near the edge of the impromptu arena.

If Erend and Sammuk said anything to each other, she couldn’t hear it over the noise of the crowd. Sammuk began circling, looking for an opening. He made a quick jab with his spear, blocked by Erend’s hammer. He tried again and again, testing Erend’s reflexes. The Vanguard captain moved with efficiency. Weighed down with heavy armor and carrying a heavier weapon, he couldn’t afford to dance around like the Banuk. But his movements, when they occurred, were deft and direct.

They grappled, separated and Sammuk circled again. This went on for awhile, with the occasional crossing of weapons, kick of a boot, or elbow to the ribs. Erend used the handle of his hammer to bruise rather than swinging the weapon in a bone-breaking, deadly arc. The Banuk’s jabs seemed meant to tire and annoy Erend more than wound.

“They’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

“Disappointed?” asked the Sun-King.

“Relieved. This should never have happened.”

“The same could be said for a great many things in life,” said Avad. “Yet, here we are. You are gifted at making the best of things, Clever Masara. I see that in the way you turn metal to marvel. It is a trait I admire. Perhaps we can make the best of this situation, together.”

The Banuk feinted, but Erend didn’t fall for it. He used the opportunity to knock Sammuk off balance. Sammuk tried to recover but Erend swept his leg and the Banuk landed flat on his back. Erend swung his hammer. Sammuk blocked and his spear broke in half.

Erend dropped the head of his hammer into Sammuk’s gut and leaned on the long handle, pinning him to the ground. She saw Sammuk raise his hands in concession. Erend helped him to his feet.

Sammuk left the arena with his companions while Erend waved to the spectators who cheered, clapped and exchanged shards for wagers lost and won.

The Sun-King did not touch her but his words felt like a caress. “Now is the moment to decide, Masara Birdmaker. Will you stay by my side and make the rumors true? Or will you run to Stalwart Erend and prove them false?”

She knew what she had to do. Even if Erend didn’t feel the same, she needed to show them she wasn’t Ersa, that she didn’t want to be treated like a sister by Erend or a lover by Avad. She needed the Sundom to know the truth, to buy her work for its own merits and not because they wanted favor from the Sun-King.

Wisps of hair fell from their bindings as she ran to the field. The crowd parted to let her pass.

When she reached Erend, he said, “Well, I guess that’s one Banuk who won’t be getting a feather. How many more do I –”

She grabbed his collar, raised herself on her toes, and kissed him before he could finish. When she let go, he wrapped both arms around her and pulled her back.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I don’t think I heard you the first time.”

He kissed her again, but this time she didn’t let go until one of the Vanguard said, “Captain? His Radiance is returning to the Sun-Palace.”

“I think I disappointed him,” said Masara.

“He’ll get over it,” said Erend. “You can make him a singing trout or something.”

Only then did she notice the blood on his sleeve.

“You’re wounded. I’ll find a healer.”

“No, I’m fine, just… oh…”

He slumped against her.

“Erend!”

He laughed and straightened up. “It’s not my blood, it’s his. Look, my shirt’s not even torn. Fire and spit, you were actually worried. I never knew how much you cared. You do care, right? That’s what this means?”

“Yes, I care. But…”

He looked grim. “But what?”

“You’re in love with Aloy.”

“I’m…? Wha–? No.” He shook his head. “She’s a cute kid, good in a fight, but way too skinny for me. She doesn’t drink Scrappersap, feed me fruit or call me a — what was it? A dross-headed son of a smelter? And she doesn’t know the words to ‘The Slag of Furnace Bottom, so — bah.’”

“What made you change your mind?”

“Change my mind? I’ve never had a mind to change. Wait, that makes me sound like an idiot. What I mean to say is that I’ve been crazy about you since we met in Iron Hills.”

“And you didn’t think of telling me?”

“I was afraid you might feel like you owed me something for bringing you to Meridian and setting you up in Olin’s place. I wanted you to like me for me. But then I had to go and show off, ‘oh, hey, let me introduce you to the Sun-King,’ and you went and made him a bird. Now he’s interested, why would you want me?”

“I told you, I don’t want to be with him.”

“Yeah, all that power — and wealth — and abs — it would be awful. I had to listen to him flirt with you all the way to the Spire.”

“As I’ve listened to you talk about Aloy for weeks. Why would you want me instead of a fire-haired Nora who helped you find your sister?”

“We’re a pair, aren’t we?”

“Like hammer and steel.”

“Marry me.” Her eyes widened in surprise and he rushed to add, “Or don’t. You know, that’s fine, too. Whatever you want to do. Or not do. Oh, I really am an idiot. You keep telling me you want to be independent and I’m naming our children. Not that we should have children, but — if — you wanted to, and if we had a girl, could we call her Ersa? Okay, that’s all I’m going to say. Shutting up now.”

“Erend?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

He smiled. “I love you, too.”

* * *

“The Slag of Furnace Bottom” – An Oseram drinking song

An ingot of gold is a sight to behold
One of steel not soon forgotten
But there isn’t a one
In the Claim or beyond
Like the slag of Furnace Bottom

She’s not one for jewels or the fine Carja fools
Who wear silks and summer blossoms
No, she isn’t refined
But you won’t waste your time
With the slag of Furnace Bottom

You can search every place from Rustwash to Embrace
You can delve each cave and grotto
But there is no crevasse
With a nice piece of glass
Like the slag of Furnace Bottom.

When you’ve smelt all the ores from the south to the north
And hammered ‘em til you’re numb
When your tongs need a rest
She’ll do what she does best
She’s the slag of Furnace Bottom

* * *

In the game, Aloy rests in Olin’s home before the final battle against Hades and the Eclipse cultists. I think we can assume Masara has moved into the Sun Palace with Erend, leaving Olin’s house available for Aloy.

The drinking song was inspired by a line I read while researching blacksmithing terms. “Slag” is a glass-like substance left behind in a furnace after the smelting or ore refining process. Blue or green slag from ancient copper foundries was actually used to make glassware, jewelry or glazes for ceramics, which is probably where the game developers got the idea for “slagshine glass” as a treasure item in Horizon Zero Dawn.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Try-It Tuesday: SPIDER-MAN

Marvel’s SPIDER-MAN is a Playstation exclusive, released in September 2018, that became one of the fastest-selling games of the year and one of the best-selling PlayStation 4 games of all time.

My husband bought the game so I figured I’d try it out this week. I’m not into third-person button combo fighting games, but I can see why people enjoy it. Web-slinging and swinging through the streets of New York is a blast, the dialog is witty, and it’s fun being a hero.

The gameplay in SPIDER-MAN didn’t really break any new ground, at least not in the short time I played. It pretty much felt like inFAMOUS from 2009 all over again, except they added some mini-games with various brain-teaser puzzles that didn’t really seem to belong in an “action-adventure” superhero crime-fighter game.

And 55 backpacks stashed around the city? Did Tony Stark buy him that $2,000 worth of canvas? No wonder Bethesda had to use vinyl. I joke, but seriously… 55 backpacks?

SPIDER-MAN is rated “T” for teens, due to blood, drug reference, language, and violence.

~ J.L. Hilton

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