The radiant heat of an atomic bomb can turn a human body to ash in an instant. The shockwave can crush bones and burst organs for miles in every direction. And those unfortunate enough to survive will soon succumb to the unseen threat of radioactive fallout. Most bodies will lay down and die once they’ve absorbed enough radiation; a horrible death that takes days, but maybe better than the alternative that some people face. Ghoulification.
Plenty of people in the wasteland will shoot ghouls on site. They look like zombies, or mummies – monsters right out old horror vids. The tragedy is that most ghouls are just as intelligent now as they were back when they were human, and they’re perfectly aware of what’s happened to them. There’s still plenty of them that have gone feral, though. Spend enough time in a rotting body, and they degenerate into little more than animals that attack any human they see. Most folk think it’s better to just shoot first and worry about being called a bigot later.
We’re not sure why some people turn into ghouls while others just keel over after being exposed to radiation. The history tapes don’t mention ghouls existing before the Great War, so something must have changed back around the end of the 21st century. Well, a lot of things changed, but even the best minds of the wasteland can’t figure out which factor causes ghoulification. The planet was covered with unprecedented levels of radiation. Some of the sites holding stockpiles of Forced Evolutionary Virus were hit in the war, and trace amounts of the virus were released into the atmosphere. Humanity’s gene pool had also been reduced from billions of people down to a smattering of survivors – many of which had been selected by Vault-Tec for dubious purposes.
Ghoulification might happen when folks get just the right dose of radiation. Could even be a hereditary trait that was always present in humanity, but only activated by high levels of radiation exposure. Walk the wasteland long enough and you’ll find evidence for all these theories and more.
When the Great War happened, thousands of people made it to Vault-Tec facilities in time to survive the nuclear bombardment. Most of them were kept safe from the ensuing fallout, but there was one vault, number 12, where the doors didn’t close all the way. They shielded most of the radioactivity, but just enough got through to turn Vault 12‘s population into ghouls.
Every one of them was chosen by Vault-Tec, and they have a history of rigging their vaults to experience “Theatrical” malfunctions, so it can’t be a coincidence that the doors failed to seal up. This supports the notion that ghouls have a pre-existing dormant trait, but it could also mean that the scamps at Vault-Tec knew the exact amount of radiation to let in.
Either way, the ghouls who lived in Vault 12 used their pre-war technology to create a prosperous, if unsightly, town. Humans stayed away from the place, although naming the town “Necropolis” probably didn’t help with tourism.
The ghouls got along pretty well by themselves for close to a century. One of the few good parts about a ghoul is that they don’t age like humans do. Some of the pre-war ghouls are still kicking, today. Unfortunately, most of them were killed a while back, because Necropolis was one of the first places to be overrun when the Master unleashed his mutant army.
The mutants stormed in hoping to find a Vault full of pure-strain humans with no trace of mutation. They must have been hopping mad to learn that all that was left of Vault 12’s gene pool was a bunch of radioactive zombies. The ghouls managed to keep an uneasy truce with the Super Mutants for a couple of years, but eventually the mutants turned on them and slaughtered most of the town. It was nearly a hundred years after the Great War, but the folks from Vault 12 finally made it into their graves.
Some of the surviving ghouls made it to the few settlements that would tolerate their kind, like Broken Hills where they lived with humans and mutants alike. Others just set up shop in places too heavily irradiated for anyone to bother them. Another perk of being a ghoul is that they don’t get sick from radiation exposure. Hell, some of them even feed off the stuff and get a robust healthy glow when they’re around it.
A few of them settled in a town around near a broke down nuclear reactor in California. They got it running again, even though it probably wasn’t up to its pre-war safety standards. They were smart enough to trade their electricity with the surrounding cities too.
They had the idea that if they could provide enough power to their neighbors in Vault City, then they might be able to use some of that Vault-Tec medical equipment to find a cure for being a ghoul. Nothing ever came of that idea, though. Vault City wasn’t known for helping out their neighbors back in those days.
A few scientists are still looking for a cure, including a ghoul doctor in Washington DC, but there aren’t any tales of ghouls being miraculously renewed. Plenty of hucksters are looking to trick them into thinking there’s a cure, or a better world waiting for them in the sky. Not far from the Colorado river is a glowing preacher who claims he’s going to take his flock of faithful ghouls to some sort of utopian space paradise. That is if they can get their space ship repaired.
Back in the town of Gecko they had some mysterious genius hidden away beneath the town with a plan to renew their humanity somehow. They should have been a little suspicious, since the cunning plan involved gathering large amounts of cheese-flavored snacks…
Large ghoul settlements are rare these days because many factions within the wasteland have tried to annihilate them entirely. The Enclave has attempted genocide twice in the last forty years, and the Brotherhood of Steel isn’t exactly sympathetic to their plight, either.
There’s a secret ghoul city built into an old museum out in Washington DC. They have a lady who remembers the days before the bombs fell, and she tries to help out the unfortunate people who have recently transformed. Yeah, people are still turning into ghouls. Doesn’t happen often, but every now and then some lucky bastard will spend too much time near a hot spot and find themselves slowly turning into a walking hunk of beef jerky.
A person can never tell if they’ll ghoulify. Even if they stay away from radiation, they can still end up looking a ghoul if they get exposed to the Forced Evolutionary Virus – the stuff that created the Super Mutants.
Normally when someone is dipped in a vat of FEV, they come out looking Boris Karloff with a touch of sea-sickness. But there’s a few mutants who developed other forms of genetic aberration. Holotapes recovered from the Master’s old base in Mariposa speak of people who gained psychic powers, and other unique alterations. A couple of these failed attempts at perfecting the Super Mutants ended up looking just like ghouls.
One of them used to live out in the Boneyard to the West. Joined up with the Followers of the Apocalypse over a century ago. Their records say he was an ordinary human before he was dipped in the FEV vats. He was pure strain human too, fresh out of one of the vaults, but he still came out of the vats looking like a brain-eater. He might still be alive out there too, if his mutation gave him the same long lifespan of the other mutants.
There’s another old mutant who emerged from the vats looking just like a ghoul. He was a survivor of the Great War, and was the first mutant to walk the wasteland. Or at least that’s how he tells the story.
He calls himself Harold, and he claims that he had a hand in just about everything that happened over the last two hundred years. He survived the Great War inside one of the nicer vaults, and used to know the Super Mutant Master back when the Master was just an ordinary human. Also claims he was good friends with the Vault Dweller who defeated the Super Mutant army a century ago. Funny that Harold isn’t mentioned in the Vault Dweller‘s own memoir.
Harold even said that he helped the Chosen One bring down the Enclave when they tried to take over California. That might have happened, plenty of people remember both of them being in the town of Gecko at the time. But Harold’s got a fuzzy memory, so take his stories with a grain of salt. Being over two hundred years old will make a body go a little senile, and Harold’s got some unusual problems with his brain on top of old age.
It started out as a little twig growing out of his head a hundred years ago. Some side effect of his mutation. Over the decades that little branch just kept growing and growing until Harold ended up more tree than man. He wandered the country for years at his own deliberate pace, then he took root out East in a desolated spot.
By that time, he looked more like a face growing out of a tree than of a tree growing out of a zombie. He even gave off seeds that took root in the surrounding soil, so he ended up attracting a cult of tree worshipers who thought he was some kind of forest god restoring the Earth.
They pester him all day long seeking his “Divine” wisdom, and poor old Harold just can’t find any peace. They’re mostly harmless, and they’ll even let travelers in to see Harold if you agree to drink their psychedelic tree sap. Harold enjoys the company and likes having someone around to hear his bad jokes.
Not much coherent news comes out of Oasis these days, but travelers from the Capital Wasteland say that the trees north of Washington DC have been looking a mite “greener” the last few years. That could be due to the Brotherhood of Steel purifying the water in the DC basin, but it would be nice to think that old Harold was still out there, making the world a more colorful place.
Harold has walked across just about every bit of the wasteland in his two hundred years, although he stayed out of the Mojave for the most part. There is a man, a courier, who has traveled all over the Mojave, discovering its secrets and carrying messages from its highest mountains to its deepest divides.
But that is a story for another day.