“Maxson” sat in his darkened quarters, his face lit green from the glow of his terminal.  He’d only been Maxson for a month.
He rubbed his temples.  The Brotherhood’s sole source of information at this point was Paladin Ash.  He’d promoted her from Knight to Paladin when she’d brought back the lifeless body of the synth traitor, Danse.  Mustering disgust for his old body,
his old life, hadn’t been easy.  But it was what Maxson would have done. 

He’d always believed in the Brotherhood’s mission.  Humanity wouldn’t survive another apocalypse, and the reckless use of new technologies would always be a threat.  Paladin Ash had never disagreed on this point.  She’d never blamed the machines, though. For her, it was always what people did with those machines that caused the danger.  He saw her point, although he still had
reservations.  He had apparently been a synthetic human his whole life, and he’d fought the Enclave and the Institute with all the
ferocity of a lion. 

He leaned back in his usurped chair, lacing his fingers behind his head.  The only thing worse than having to lead the Brotherhood
to a false victory over the Institute was the waiting.  Paladin Ash still took regular shifts doing research patrols and escorting squires,
but she was also using the Railroad’s forces and to reinforce an old military post in the Glowing Sea.  The Institute’s scientific minds
would be relocating just as Liberty Prime was finally set loose on the Commonwealth Institute of Technology.  Ash believed that the Institute could be made into an asset for all the surviviors.  “Maxson” wasn’t so sure.  He’d let her try, though.  She’d called
herself an “angry, vengeful ghost of the innocent.”  He didn’t have to be sure.  He could count on her to destroy the Institute herself if it couldn’t be salvaged. 

Danse paced around the basement of the Memory Den.  Being here wasn’t just betrayal.  It was heresy.  He couldn’t believe he’d been talked into this.  Maybe he could make a run for it.  No.   Glory was at the door.  Besides, he’d given his word.  This was for the good of the Commonwealth.  He knew Ash, and he knew she wanted to help.  From the very first moment she’d set foot in Cambridge, she’d fought for the safety of strangers.  She’d doubtless done it before that.  He remembered that clunky old suit of T-45b she’d been wearing.  She’d waded into the ferals like a woman possessed.  He was proud to sponsor her entry to the Brotherhood.

Did machines feel pride?

He heard the thumping of power armor upstairs.  He clutched the laser pistol in his waistband.  Additional footsteps.  The quiet whoosh of a Mr. Handy.  The Brotherhood hadn’t found him.  Yet.  The noises came down the stairs and became the massive red flames and blue pinstriping of Ash’s armor.  She moved into a corner and ejected from her power armor.  As the back of the frame closed, Ash reached up and yanked the fusion core out.  Danse nodded to himself.  Smart. 

A Mr. Handy floated into the room, holding the end of a steamer trunk.  The other end was held by an Assaultron.  Danse pulled his pistol in a panic.  “Easy, Danse!”  Ash called to him.  He stepped back, but lowered his pistol.  “They’re friends of mine.”

“You have unusual taste in friends, dear.”  Dr. Amari came into the room.  “It’s a bit crowded in here.  Do you mind?”  Ash fiddled with her Pipboy and the two robots left the room.  “Thank you.  Now.  What ridiculous mess can I help you with today?”

“Dr. Amari, do you remember Curie?”  Ash asked.

“Of course I do.  I can still hardly believe that worked.” 

“I’m hoping we can do it again.  It’s complicated.”

“It always is, with you,” Dr. Amari said.  “May I?”  She gestured to the trunk.

“It’s another synth with no mind inside it.”  Ash looked at Danse.  “We’re going to give the Brotherhood proof that you’re gone.  Help me get your new body into the chair.”  Amari stepped back from the opened trunk so that Danse and Ash could pull the comatose body out.  As it unfolded from the fetal position, Danse caught a look at his new face.  He nearly dropped the body.

“Maxson?!” Danse gasped.  “What- how-?”  He let go, stepping back.  “What have you done?” 

“Maxson was a bloodthirsty monster,” Ash said.  “He may have held the Brotherhood together in a dark time, but he’s been preparing them for genocide.  I will not allow it!” Ash’s voice rose as she spoke.  “I won’t let him kill you.  I won’t let him kill Curie, or Nick, or Hancock.  I’ve already lost one family.”  Ash realized she was crying.  She sniffed.  “You’re going to be Maxson now.  We are going to give the Commonwealth a light show, and I am going to undo all the terrible things my… son… has allowed.” 

Nobody spoke.  Ash wrestled the body into one of the memory chairs.  She wiped her tears on her sleeve.  Dirt and soot streaked across her face.  “The real Maxson is dead.  I told him I’d find you, and he tailed me back to the listening post.”  Ash looked at Danse.  HIs jaw clenched and unclenched.  “The cocky bastard came with nothing but a knife.  I caught him with a sucker punch.”

“You’re no better than a raider,” Danse spat.  “You expect me to believe you’re the one to change the Institute, and you stab an unarmed man in the back?”

“He came with harm in his heart.  We both know that.  He was going to kill you for sure.  Maybe me too, when I refused.”  Ash spoke calmly.  “Do you know what I did to the man who killed my husband and took my son?”  Danse said nothing.  “Do you know what I do to raiders who kidnap a settler living in one of the settlements under the protection of the Minutemen?”  He looked down.  Ash continued.  “I’m not trying to win honor.  I’m not the hero of the Commonwealth.”  Ash’s expression turned from dark to absolute black.  “I am the angry, vengeful ghost of the innocent.”

They sat around the table topped with a heavily marked up map of the Commonwealth.  Tiny little flags dotted the map, along with little scraps of paper and green toy soldiers.  A little cannon marked each of the Minutemen’s camps.   Ash had set most of those up herself.  Eight of them were quiet.  Ash had never said so much at one time to any of them, but she had rescued every synth and destroyed every Institute patrol.  They owed her this.  “I have questions.  A lot of questions,” Desdemona said.  “I thought you were on board with destroying the Institute!”

“You’re half right.”  Ash rubbed her temples.  “The Institute needs to be stopped.  But you’re talking about killing more synths than you have ever saved.”

“She kind of has a point, Des.”  Deacon leaned back in his chair.  He was fidgetting with a pencil, looking every bit the bored student.  It was a good act, and Ash knew better. 

“Man, it can’t be done!”  Tinker Tom.  “They got eyes everywhere!  No half-measure is gonna cut it!.” 

“Even if I agree to this, and I’m not, you don’t have the resources to do this!”  Danse.  Ash knew he’d have a problem with this. 

“I have more at my disposal than you would guess, Danse.”  Ash grinned a mile wide.  “I have all of the Minutemen.  I have a score of grateful settlements.  I have the Brotherhood of Steel.  One of my very good friends is the mayor of Goodneighbor.”  Ash paused, and let that sink in.  “I have another thing.  My son has just declared that I’m the future Director for the Institute.” 

The room exploded.  “You’re WHAT?”  “Unbelievable!”  “Knew I should have killed you…” 

Ash stood.  “We can absolutely do this.”  She waited as the protests died down.  Deacon had been silent the whole time.  Ash stared as he broke into a wide grin. 

“This is going to be the best story I ever tell,” he said. 

“No,” Desdemona breathed.

“Yes,” Deacon said with a laugh.

“Factoring new variables,” PAM droned. 

“Desdemona,” Ash said.  “I’d like your help, especially because it’s the only way to save your life.”

“Are you threatening me?!”  She jumped to her feet, slamming her hands on the table.

“You said to play along for the Institute.  You know what my next task for them is?”  Ash pulled out the map that Father had handed her.  The Old North Church was circled on it, with ‘sander’ in blue marker.    “And here’s one from the Brotherhood of Steel.”  Ash pulled out Kells’ handwritten hit list and the holotape that would reprogram PAM.  “I never said a word.  I was careful.  And they all found you anyway.”  Desdemona slumped back in her chair.  Glory rubbed her temples.  Tinker Tom finally broke the silence.

“They was watchin’ our every move.”

The footfalls of the power armor shook silt from the ceiling of the ancient tunnel.  Ash felt just a little claustrophobic.  She felt that every time she came here, though.  The culture of paranoia that permeated this place meant she couldn’t use a runner, and she dared not tell anyone that she’d been hacking eyebots and tinkering with robots of her own.  They could have their secrets, and Ash would have hers.  Danse followed her, silently.  He probably felt exposed without his own bipedal tank.  Ash couldn’t blame him.  They were walking into the den of a known enemy of the Brotherhood.  Danse would act to save his life, but he was still loyal to the cause. 

Ash stopped outside the sliding wall.  She reached into a satchel hung at her waist, and pulled out some seemingly ratty clothes.  “You’re going to have to change.”  Danse looked down at his pilot’s uniform and back up at Ash.  He nodded and took the clothing.  He was surprised at the weight.

“What is this?” he asked her.

“Tinker Tom came up with it.  Concealed plates and kevlar.  It’s lighter than normal combat armor, nearly as strong, and invisible.  Until we get you a new frame and some plates, it’ll have to do.”  Danse grunted, impressed.  He pulled the trousers on over his uniform.  “And it wouldn’t hurt to have you looking a little more civilian until I’ve convinced them not to shoot you.”  Ash reached into a different bag, slung higher on the waist of her armored frame.  She pulled out a laser pistol.  Danse tucked it into the waistband at the small of his back before pulling on the dingy grey jacket. 

“Just in case, right?” he said.  Ash nodded.  Danse pulled off his pilot’s coif, revealing a tangled and sweaty matte of brown hair.  Ash turned to the sliding wall and spun the dial, entering the extremely juvenile code.  R-A-I-L-R-O-A-D.  With a click and a rumble, the bricks parted and revealed the entry to the Railroad HQ.

She thundered in, with Danse in tow.  The wall closed again, unnoticed.  Ash held her rifle at parade rest.  This place was a closely guarded secret.  Ash was breaking more than a few rules, but this wasn’t a routine mission.  The armor took up most of the hallway, providing Danse with some cover.  Drummer Boy came running up to Ash like he always did.  “Desdemona needs to…” he trailed off when he spotted Danse.  His hand went for his sidearm.

“Don’t.”  Ash’s voice came out hard and flat.  Drummer Boy froze.  “He’s with me, and this is dire.”  Ash watched his face as his intellect caught up with his courage.  He might be more scared of Glory than Ash, but it wouldn’t be by much.  Especially not when Ash dressed for the occasion.  “We can wait here while you tell Desdemona.”  Not that that would be necessary.  The armor’s speaker carried well in the relative quiet of the cellar.  Drummer Boy nodded and turned, but Desdemona was already in the hall, followed by Glory and Deacon.  Glory had her minigun out, spinning up.  Deacon had his hands at his sides.  Both were equally threatening.

“What the hell is this, Professor?” Des demanded.  “You’re going to blow our whole damn-!”

“Can it.” Ash cut her off.  “I’m going to save your whole damned operation.  Again.”  Desdemona stopped.

“I’m listening,” she said.

“The man with me is a synth.  He needs our help.  I want to give him our help.”  Ash looked back at Danse.  “And I think he can help me save the whole Commonwealth.”  Glory snorted.  Ash glared through her helmet.  Deacon smirked.  Ash forced herself to relax.  “I’d like you all to meet Paladin Danse of the Brotherhood of Steel.”

“Doctor Ayo,” Ash said.  The angry little bald man stalked back and forth in the SRB office.
“Doctor Ayo!”  Ash yelled.  The bald man whirled on her.  He leaned in close to her face.

“Tell me again how you managed to lose a Courser!” he shouted.  Spittle flecked Ash’s face.  She had gotten some truly nasty liquids on her since she thawed, but it still made her skin crawl.  “You do not just LOSE A COURSER!”  His entire head had gone red.

“Doctor Ayo, I understand that you’re upset,” Ash said very quietly.  “But if you continue to talk to me like this, you won’t live to see me become the Director.”  She smiled as sweetly as she was able.  The dried blood on her face made for a terrifying visage.  Ash had a burn across the right side of her head, and her vest, shirt, and pants were all burned down to the plates sewn into them.  Everything but the hair was an easy fix, but it was important to be convincing. 

“Are you threatening me?!” He shouted, shoving Ash against the wall. He pressed close.

“I am,” Ash whispered.  Faster than thought, she whipped her 10mm pistol from her right leg, and pressed Ayo’s mouth shut with the suppressor.  “You are a tiny little bully, and I fucking hate bullies,” she whispered into his ear.  “Every raider and super mutant and scientist who preys upon those weaker than them.”  She backed him into the opposite wall.  “I would love to solve this problem by civil discourse.”  Ash sniffed.  She smelled like a garbage fire.  She needed a shower regardless of whether she ended up covered in Ayo’s blood.  “Do you think we can do that?”  She pressed the suppressor against the underside of his jaw so hard that he couldn’t nod.

“Yes,” he said through clenched teeth. 

“Good.”  Ash stepped back, releasing the man.  She holstered the gun.  He cleared his throat, smoothed his black and white Institute frock.  “Now.  X6-88 was destroyed.  A super mutant with a mini nuke got the drop on us.  I was saved by my power armor.  He… was unrecoverable.” 

“I… see.”  Doctor Ayo frowned.  Maybe.  Ash had never seen him when he wasn’t wearing some sort of scowl.  “X6-88’s experience will be missed.  But I will assign you another Courser.” 

“Can I pick one?  Or…  Design one?”

“What is wrong with the standard models?”  Ayo asked through clenched teeth. 

“Nothing!  Nothing.”  Ash wanted to keep this civil.  Sort of.  Everything would be easier with a little cooperation.  “It’s just – the Coursers only have a couple of faces and they’re pretty distinctive.  Not good for covert operations.”

“Hmm,”  Ayo narrowed his eyes at her.  “That… is actually not the worst idea.”  He visibly relaxed.  “l’ll let Robotics know you’re coming.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”  Ash moved for the doorway.

“You should go to Medical for those burns.”

“They can wait.”  Ash disappeared into the atrium.

“I’m not going to kill my friend, Danse.  Maxson is wrong about this.  He’s wrong about a lot of things.”
Her speaker boomed in the cave.  She’d never seen Paladin Danse outside of his power armor before.  It felt wrong.  There were a lot of things about this that felt wrong. 

“You’re bound by duty to do this, soldier.”  Danse stood proudly, facing what he assumed to be his executioner. 

“This is bullshit, and you know it.  No one is more dedicated to the Brotherhood than you.  You haven’t done anything to betray anyone.  The Institute may have built your body, but look at everything you’ve done with that body.”  Ash licked her lips inside her helmet.  She tasted blood.  The Brotherhood had been a great resource thus far, but the enthusiasm for exterminating non-humans was wearing on her.  “Did you ever hear of Nick Valentine?”

“You know we have intel on all potential threats in the Commonwealth.”

“Your intel is worthless. I’m the one who gathered the intel that revealed a synth Paladin.”  Danse frowned.  It was hard to argue that.  Ash continued.  “Nick has helped so many people that even Diamond City won’t kick him out.  They had a synth shoot up the marketplace, and they still let Nick stay.  He’s a better man than most of the humans I meet, and so are you.”  Ash’s blood ran hot.  This had to work.  “The world needs a Brotherhood of Steel, but they’ve got the wrong bad guy.  Synths aren’t inherently evil.  Most of them are being used for slave labor right now by the Institute.”

“All right.  Enough.  I’m with you.  Like always.”  Danse sat down on a rock.  Ash lumbered over and knelt next to him.  She gingerly placed a massive armored hand on his shoulder.  “So, what do we do now?”

“I have an idea.  The first part, you can handle.  The second part, you aren’t going to like.”  Ash grinned inside her helmet.

“One thing at a time, then.  What’s first?”  He looked into her steel visage.

“You know where a synth goes when they need help?”  Danse let out a heavy sigh.  Ash grinned harder.  “Let’s go join the Railroad.” 

Ash cranked the bolt tight on the left leg plating. Between the legs of the walking tank, she could see the dark form of X6-88 as he adjusted the lenses on his rifle. “X6,” Ash said. “What do you think of all this?” He tilted his head. He was probably looking at her, but with his dark shades it was hard to be sure. Ash continued. “Father says that I’ll be the new director of the Institute when he’s gone.” Father was her son, Shaun. She hated calling him Father. She didn’t like calling him Shaun. X6 still said nothing. She took the leap. “The fact that the SRB is hunting synths and not protecting them… It feels wrong to me. If I take charge, I would change that.”

“I trust Father’s direction, and he has put his faith in you,” X6 said. He paused. “You have proven yourself capable in all ways, and so I can trust that as well.” He turned back to the workbench.

“The changes I would make…” Ash took a deep breath. “Doctor Ayo would not like them. He would likely react more violently than the men in Bio-Science. The other Coursers might also resist.” They would definitely resist. Ash stood behind her armor, still keeping it between her and X6. There was a very real chance that he would not take what she had to say very well.

“Ma’am, what changes would you make?” X6 turned to face Ash, crossing his massive arms. His black leather trenchcoat squeaked with the motion. Ash steeled her nerves. There hadn’t been a huge number of things she’d done since coming out of Vault 111 that didn’t end in a bloodbath. After all, even a synth could bleed…