Posted: May 22, 2016 in Fiction

You pass through the darkened hallway, ignoring the cold  that leaches feeling from your fingers and toes.  You’ve been here before, but it’s difficult to remember your last visit.  The ancient double doors loom in front of you, draped in dust and cobweb.  The brass rings are black with corrosion.  You grasp one and pull.  Both doors swing toward you, and the great hall beyond is revealed.  You step inside, and the doors close behind you. 

The great hall is absolutely, oppressively dark.  You look around with blind eyes, yet you can see every detail as clear as day.  The table is still set for a feast.  The serving tray sits empty.  It has always been your responsibility to bring sustenance.  You’ve failed again, but there is no one there to notice.  The walls are still covered in swords and spears, armor, shields, all manner of tools of war.  You run your hand along the wall, and the armaments crumble into dust.  You make your way to the head of the table. 

A frozen prism sits at the head.  You hear a whisper in your mind.  You leave me here to rot, the whisper accuses.  You only come here when you have a need, and then you lock me away to starve.  You feel shame.  The whisper is right.  What favor do you need this time, it asks.  You stop in front of the mass of ice.  You pass  your hand across the surface, brushing away dust and frost.  The motion reveals a figure, all wings and claws.  An angel of destruction.  The whisper grows louder, becoming your voice.  Ask your favor, and then leave me alone. 

No favors this time, you promise the angel.  Then why have you come here?  You came to apologize.  Your voice cracks as you say the words aloud.  “I’m sorry.”  You press your hand to the ice.  Water trickles from the point of contact.  You speak again, louder this time.  Stronger.  Forcefully.  “I’m sorry.”  You pull back your hand.  Ball it into a fist.  Smash the fist into the ice.  A spiderweb of cracks blossoms.  You punch the ice again.  Your skin splits, your knuckles bleed.  The cracks grow.  “I’m sorry, and I came here to set you free.”
You strike again.


“Desdemona and her team are dead, Father.”  Ash lied through her teeth.  And incidentally, her helmet. 

“I wish you wouldn’t wear that thing in here, Mother,” Shaun said.  “It makes you so much less personable.”  He coughed.  “What about Liberty Prime?”

“I figured that would hold.  They need a beryllium agitator to start its internal reactor.”  Ash pulled a long metallic cylinder out of her satchel.  “You know, like the one you want to install in the Institute’s reactor?” 

“Hmpf.  Fair enough.”  Shaun rubbed his eyes.  “It would still make me feel much better about leaving you in charge if you got the Brotherhood dealt with.”  He looked past Ash’s oversized form.  She turned.  A  trio of Eradicators in full armor were approaching.  “What is it?” 

“Acting Director Ayo has been incapacitated.  Possible infiltration,” one droned in a metallic voice.  Ash could not tell which one it was coming from. 

“Has a Courser investiga -”  Shaun’s words were cut off by a muffled boom.  The room rattled. 

“Attack detected,” said one of the Striders. 

“Find out who it is, and STOP THEM!” Shaun shouted.  “You!  He pointed at Ash as the two Striders turned to leave.  “I asked you to deal with the Brotherhood!” 

“You made lots of enemies, dear,” Ash said.  “Maybe it’s your own slaves’ uprising.”  She stepped closer, and put a metallic hand on Shaun’s shoulder.  She pulled the rifle free of its holster with the other.  “Don’t worry, son.  I’ll save the Institute.  But it’d help us all a lot if we could evacuate the science staff.”

“Evacuate to where?”  He tried to shove her hand away.  She didn’t budge.  His eyes widened.  “What have you done?”

“Replacing humanity with a slave race is not the way to save the world.”  Ash squeezed.  “This isn’t the life I wanted for my son.”  Shaun’s face went pale and his mouth worked silently.  “I’ve got a friend working on your terminal now.  The evacuation should sound soon.”  The suit’s targetting computer blared an alarm.  Ash glanced toward the door and raised her rifle.  The targeting computer locked on the heads of thetrio of Eradicators as they reentered the room with raised rifles.  Servos made fine adjustments to her aim, and she squeezed the trigger three times.  Crack! One one thousand.  Crack!  Two one thousand. Crack!  All three collapsed.  That trick wouldn’t work twice today.  Coursers had to be coming, and they’d definitely be cloaked by Stealthboy units.  Her mechanical gaze shifted back to Shaun.  “Give me access, sound the evacuation, and I’ll take you with us.”  Nick would get it anyway.  He was an unparalleled hacker.  This was more about redemption than anything. 

“You’ve doomed us all.  I hope you’re happy, mother.”  He closed his eyes.  “I never should have released you.” 

“The list of things you shouldn’t have done is a fucking long one, kid.” 

“Doctor Ayo!”  Ash’s amplified voice boomed through the atrium of the SRB.  “I’ve found the leak!”  She thundered deeper in to the SRB.  Where was that weasel?  She lumbered into the main office.  “Doctor Ayo!”  He was sitting at a terminal, hands on his chin, reading something.  “Ayo, I’ve found how the Railroad is getting Synths out of the Institute.”  He didn’t look up. 

“So stop them,” he said.  Ash rolled her eyes.  No wonder the Railroad was able to get Synths out of this ivory tomb.  She drew her pistol and shot Ayo in the head.  Blood splattered across the office, and Ayo slumped forward.  She walked over and pulled a Vault-Tec lunchbox out of her satchel.  She flipped the switch on an tiny electrical circuit taped to the lid, and placed it in his lap.  She backed away quickly, then turned and headed for the exit.

The air crackled and popped.  A thunderclap.  A flash.  A hulking steel figure filled the room.  Nick looked up from his paper.  “Hey there, stranger.”  Ash stood there for a moment, clenching and unclenching her mechanical fists.  Nick raised an eyebrow.  “So, it went pretty well then, huh?”  Ash didn’t say a word.  She lumbered into a corner, and the armor beeped and hissed.  The back opened, petals on a blooming steel flower, and she climbed out of the machine.  Her face was bleak like the Glowing Sea.  Maybe less green.  Maybe more stormy.  “You, uh, wanna talk about it?”  He folded the paper and set it on his desk. 

Ash plopped down on the couch with a heavy sigh.  “I blew it.”  She looked up and met the eyes of the artificial man.  “I lost my cool.  Just about killed him on the spot, Nick.  It would have been easy.”  Ash looked down at her hands.  “I might even have made it out.” 

“Maybe.”  Nick pulled out a cigarette.  “I mean, yeah, in that tin can a yours, you coulda escaped.”  He lit the smoke, took a drag.  Faint wisps leaked out of his tattered chest covering.  Nick never tried to hide who, or what, he was.  “You can’t just shoot the Boogey Man, though.”  He examined the ember at the end of his cigarette.

“Oh, I wasn’t talking about shooting him.”  Nick’s eyes flicked to the hands of the robot in the corner.  the faint click and whir of his eyes searching and finding flecks of white – paint transfer from the life support and bed.  “I let him get under my skin.  Did I tell you that he thawed me out just to see what I’d do?”

“Yeah, I recall something about that.”

“And then he questioned my competence when I said the Railroad wasn’t dead yet.” 

“You are a pretty high-scoring killer.”

“The Railroad aren’t a bunch of two-bit thugs.”  Ash put elbows on knees, and her forehead in her hands.  “I came out of that fucking vault aching to find my son.  I didn’t want…  All of this.”  She waved one hand above her head.  Nick stood, crossed the room, and rested a mechanical hand on her shoulder. 

“Listen.  You remember when we did that Eddie Winter thing?”  Ash looked up at him.  He crouched down to her level.  “You remember how mad I was – am – about just being a copy of Officer Nick Valentine?”  Ash nodded.  “I didn’t ask to be made, but the Institute doesn’t care about that.  We’re the same.  They made you too.  The only question is, do they get to toss you out with the trash?”  Ash clenched her teeth. 

“I thought I could just play all the sides and come out on top without having to kill.” At that, Nick chuckled. 

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking any eggs, Ash.” 

“I want to kill the Boogey Man, but not all synths are bad.  I can’t just go in guns blazing.” 

“Are you kidding?  I’ve seen you do just that!”

“You know what I mean.  Raiders are one thing.  This…  This would be something else.” 

“Yeah.”  He stood.  Took another drag of his cigarette.  “Listen.  So there’s the innocents down there.  Do you know who the not-so-innocents are?”  Ash nodded.  “So we start there.  I’ve seen you out in the world.  You’ll sort it out as you go.  You always do.”  Ash sat up.  She rubbed her eyes.  “Besides, you don’t have to do it alone.”  Ash stood, stretched, and hugged Nick.  He chuckled again. 

“You’re the best, Valentine.”  She paused.  “If you really want to help, I think I’ve got something for you.  It won’t be safe, though.”

“And here I was worried I’d be bored,” he said with a wry grin.  Ash headed for her armor. 

“I just have to figure out how to get you in ahead of the Brotherhood.”  The armor opened up and Ash crawled in.  The plates locked in place behind her. 

“Sounds like a good time.”  Nick dropped the butt of his cigarette in the ash tray.  “And Ash,” he said.


“Don’t let all that horsepower go to your head.”

The bed was all white, like everything in the Institute.  Machinery crept up the sides and over the top, maintaining Shaun’s bodily functions.  His heath had been on the decline for some time, and he’d named Ash his successor, pending her proving her loyalty to the Institute’s mission.  Except, Ash hated the Institute.  Ash loomed over the bed, looking menacing as ever in her armor.  Shaun had often said it was unnecessary inside the Institute.  Ash remembered the armed and armored synth guards and the negotiations in the Bio Tech labs too well to believe him. 

“Ash, are you listening?”  Shaun asked.  He coughed weakly.

“Sorry.  A lot on my mind lately.”  She shook her head.  “What were you saying?”

“I need a progress report.  We have quite a number of things I’d like to see completed before I’m gone.” 

“Right.  Where do I start?”  Ash got ready to lie through her teeth.  She’d been a lawyer, two hundred years ago.  She could spin a hell of a story. 

“The Railroad,” Shaun prompted. 

“Right.  Gone to ground.  Prior to my arrival here, Tom had me setting up sensor suites all over the city.  They must have seen me coming.”

“Ridiculous,” Shaun spat.  “I can’t trust my own mother with a simple task?”

“You little… ”  Ash was instantly angry.  “You’re asking me to kill a bunch of people who have consistently slipped through your fingers, Father.”  His title came out of her mouth like a curse.  “Tinker Tom cracked the algorithm that got me in here in the first place.  I’ll find them, but this kind of shit takes time.” 

“Maybe I was wrong to bring you here.” 

“Maybe you were fucking wrong to leave me on ice for forty fucking years!” Ash yelled.  Her heads up display started tracking potential targets.  Guards.  “You let me out to wander, just to see what I would do?”  She grabbed the bed frame with gauntleted hands.  The frame crumpled with her augmented strength.  “And then you order me to kill people who are helping the slave race you’ve created to escape!  I am so goddamned ashamed to be your mother!”  Ash was screaming.  Alarms were lit in her helmet.  This wasn’t going well. 

Ash swallowed her rage.  She let go of the bed and stepped back.  She raised her hands to show the synths that she was yielding.  “Father, the Railroad is not a threat to your operation any more.  The Brotherhood of Steel is not a threat to your operation anymore.  The largest threat to the Institute is now you and me.  I’ll get the goddamned reactor working.  I’ll sabotage Liberty Prime.  I will find the Railroad.  If it’s what you want, I’ll follow in your footsteps.”  She dropped her hands to her sides.  “But I am not one of your minions to be used and abused.”  She turned and brushed past the synth guards at the door. 

“Mother…” Shaun started.  Ash paused.  “You have a lot to do and little time.  Work fast.”  She clenched her mechanized fists. 

“You won’t believe what I’m capable of,” she whispered.  She thundered out of the room. 

Desdemona was not happy.  She had played everything so carefully.  She had heeded PAM’s every warning, kept careful track of all of her assets, and burned oh so many resources with safe retreats.  It was all for nothing; everyone knew where she was and everyone had ordered the Professor to kill her.  On top of that, the Professor – a mechanized tornado of destruction – had hijacked her whole operation.  God fucking dammit.  It was like she suddenly didn’t matter.

Wait.  That wasn’t true.  If she didn’t matter, no one would care that she was alive and that clearly wasn’t the case.

Des took a long drink from the ancient wine bottle and leaned over the rail of the bell tower.  This would be her last breath of fresh air for a while, and she was determined to savor it.  She set the wine on the railing and pulled out a cigarette.  The one silver lining in all this was that the professor had gotten her some pre-war cigarettes.  There was a time when she’d have been concerned about the soft orange glow giving away her position, but the dual kill orders from two of the other big three players in the Commonwealth had made her fatalistic.  Besides, her executioner was busy setting up a scam of epic proportions.

She leaned on the railing, and blew a plume of smoke into the darkness.  Fuck it, she thought.  Yeah, they’d save a shitload more Gen 3 synths this way.  She did want that.  She started mulling over alternate names for the Synth Retention Bureau.  Synth Placement, maybe?  After all, the Professor wanted Desdemona to be the new head.

“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.