Designation M3-48 watches the footage again. The woman -- Janice, the name M3-48 will answer to -- smiles at her wife, leans across the kitchen table to catch her hands, tilts her head and smiles. M3-48 does the same -- smiles at the empty seat in front of her, leans across the table to catch at non-existent hands, smiles at the empty air.
Her mannerisms are perfect. Her face is perfect. She has Janice’s memories. She has looked into Janice’s face and mimicked her expression of horror perfectly, if a half-second behind -- she reviewed the tape with the scientist who made her, both of them pleased with her performance. She believes she is ready.
Janice is easy to replace. The Commonwealth is a dangerous place, and the Minutemen are easy to hunt. Janice was only separated from the rest of her squad for a few hours -- more than enough time for M3-48 to replace her.
M3-48 jogs back to her companions. “Sorry about that,” she says, automatically modulating her voice to match Janice’s usual chirrupy speech. “I thought I saw something.”
The leader of their little band frowns at Janice, but doesn’t push. The Minutemen lack discipline. She has to fight to keep from smiling. No wonder this is so easy to do, if this is the best the wasteland has to stop the Institute. M3-48 allows herself the briefest moment of unscheduled triumph -- she is performing above and beyond standards, and she is pleased.
Their little tour of duty passes without incident. The crisis the Institute manufactured is easily dealt with, the people have been protected, and now M3-48 is on her way to her new home.
With every step closer to Janice’s home she feels… possibly sick? This body is still a little new to her, and its responses to stimuli are still confusing. She can’t think of why she should be malfunctioning -- she is prepared for this, she is comfortable with her role. It is true that the woman’s wife probably knows her better than most, which may explain M3-48’s sudden reticence. It’is one thing to fool a bunch of acquaintances primarily interested in dressing up and pretending to be important; the woman’s wife is something else entirely.
Still, she is the best the Institute has to offer. She can accurately simulate every emotion they have seen Janice make. She has been produced for this task and this task alone, and the Institute doesn’t make mistakes.
...Besides, hovering here is illogical at best. It won’t make the woman go senile; you have to wait a much longer time for that. She makes sure her shoulders are set like Janice’s, and her strides are as long as hers, and sets off towards the house.
She is expecting Eleanor (Ellie, her memory helpfully supplies, also El, Sweetling, Love) to come rushing out of the house towards her, calling her -- Janice’s -- name. Similarly, she is expecting Eleanor to fling herself into her arms and is already putting a foot back to catch herself, Ellie’s weight hitting her solidly in the chest.
What she isn’t expecting at all is the sudden rush of warmth in her chest, or to suddenly start laughing uncontrollably. She tightens her arms around Ellie and buries her face in Ellie’s hair. She smells like soap and the little sachets of pipe tobacco she stashes in her underwear drawer and unwashed hair and -- “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize you’d be back so soon!” Ellie is saying, in between kissing Janice’s -- M3-48’s -- face and hands. “I’d have at least changed my clothes,” she says, somewhere between a laugh and sob. “I was going to make cookies! And the house is a mess, and Alice isn’t even home, she’s visiting with her cousins -- ”
“Eleanor,” says M3-48, or Janice, or whichever one of them wants to bury her face into Eleanor’s tangled hair and musty clothing and hold onto her forever. “Eleanor.”
Eleanor bustles around the kitchen, keeping up a running commentary of everything that’s gone on in the last three days while making chicken and dumplings. “You’ve been away for days,” she says sternly when M3-48 tries to get up. “Who knows what kind of garbage you’ve been eating -- honestly, the way they feed you, sometimes you come back and I can practically count your ribs, they’re willing to work you to the bone but not to feed you? An army can’t march on an empty stomach! I should go down and give that general of yours a piece of my mind -- ”
M3-48 has seen this argument, or close enough, several times in the surveillance videos. Before, she watched with contempt -- Eleanor and Janice had had the same argument many times, with very little variance, which is illogical at best. Additionally, Eleanor is objectively incorrect -- Janice is fed adequately, along with everyone else in the Minutemen.
Now, each insult paradoxically fills M3-48’s chest with warmth. Eleanor cares, M3-48 thinks. She wants me to be well and to be happy. It is not an entirely comfortable feeling. M3-48 isn’t sure how to describe it. It’s nice, but it makes her feel constricted at the same time.
“Eleanor,” she says. She can hear the other Janice’s voice speaking alongside her in her memory. “El, it’s really not that bad.” She can hear the affection in her own voice.
“It is too that bad,” Eleanor sniffs. “You’ll waste away to nothing.”
Synths cannot gain or lose weight. No matter how much or how little she gets fed, this is her body now. “Now you’re being melodramatic,” M3-48 says, crossing her ankles and smoothing her skirt down over her lap. “Besides, I could stand to lose a few -- ”
“No you don’t, and certainly not by starving to death in some muddy field somewhere -- ” Eleanor starts up again. It’s hard for M3-48 to pay attention to the exact words, it’s so much when she’s being filled with this strange warm soft feeling, so she watches Eleanor’s hands instead, the way they tremble as she rolls out the biscuit dough.
Before she entirely realizes she’s doing it, M3-48 catches Eleanor’s wrist and pulls her close. “It’s okay,” M3-48 says.
Eleanor’s eyes are filling with tears. She sniffs and wipes her eyes hurriedly with her apron. With her other hand, she runs one dry, cracked thumb over M3-48’s knuckles, “Of course it’s okay,” she says tartly. “You’re here. What makes you think things aren’t okay?”
M3-48 tugs her closer. Eleanor leans down and kisses M3-48 once, very gently, on the lips, then rests her forehead against M3-48’s. “I missed you,” Eleanor says. “I’m glad you’re back.” Then she straightens, wiping a hand across her eyes as turns back to the biscuits. Her hands aren’t shaking anymore. M3-48 watches her work as Eleanor fills M3-48 on all the local gossip she has missed while away.
“Here, can you help me with this?” Eleanor says. She pulls her long hair up and away from the nape of her neck, revealing a single button at the top of her blouse.
M3-48 is designed out of the same raw materials as any Institute courser. She was created to be tough and strong, capable both of breaking a man’s jaw in a single punch and picking the most delicate of locks.
...She fumbles the button. She is suddenly hyperaware of Eleanor’s physical presence -- the heat of her body, the fine hairs along the back of her neck. Several strands of dark hair tickle M3-48’s wrists as she winces, her fingers unreasonably clumsy.
Eleanor hasn’t noticed. She is still standing there, her skin glowing in the lamplight. M3-48 finally gets it, letting out a tiny little sigh of relief as the button finally goes through the buttonhole.
“It’s done,” she says. She runs her fingers down Eleanor’s shoulders. It seems… she’s not sure what to say. It seems odd to be doing this. She wants to touch Eleanor’s skin, but she’s afraid of what might happen.
“Thanks, darling,” Eleanor says. She turns and smiles at M3-48, her eyes soft and luminescent in the lamplight. Eleanor takes M3-48’s hand and kisses the palm, runs a thumb over her dry skin. “I’m glad you’re home,” Eleanor says, leaning against M3-48.
They climb into bed together. Eleanor turns off the light and settles against M3-48’s side, curling up warm and alive in the crook of her arm. M3-48 stays awake for a long time, watching Eleanor sleep.
Falling into a routine is easy. Eleanor cooks, most of the time; M3-48 washes dishes. M3-48 does the laundry, and Eleanor hangs everything up. They both take turns chasing after Alice.
It might be M3-48’s imagination, but sometimes she thinks Alice can tell. Sometimes there is a moment of hesitation before Alice kisses her goodnight, and she tags along with Eleanor to work more often than she did before. M3-48’s initial mission specifications included killing the girl if necessary -- if she is unable to fool the child, a plethora of ways to dispose of her are available to M3-48. Thinking about it makes her feel physically sick. She knows it’s a remnant of Janice’s memories and emotions, but she still can’t surmount the feeling of nausea at the thought of Alice’s body going still and dull beneath M3-48’s hands.
The most peculiar thing for M3-48 is how quickly she forgets -- or rather, doesn’t forget, just stops caring -- about how filthy the wasteland is. Nothing has changed; she still yearns for the clean sterile quiet of the Institute, and no matter her efforts, the house will never be clean enough. Neither Ellie nor Alice bathe nearly often enough. It causes M3-48 nearly physical pain to avoid washing herself every day.
But, when Eleanor comes home from a long day and toes her shoes off at the door, then flops bonelessly onto the couch, sticking her feet into M3-48’s lap, she hardly notices the stains on Eleanor’s socks as she rubs Eleanor’s feet and makes understanding noises about her daily complaints. When Alice falls and scrapes her knee, M3-48 barely thinks about what diseases can be transmitted through mucus and tears as she wipes tears off of Alice’s face and tells her she’ll be perfectly fine.
One day, while replanting tatoes, it begins to rain. “Here, give me that trellis and get inside -- ” M3-48 says, not noticing Eleanor and Alice exchanging devious looks. M3-48 is shocked when she turns her back and a glob of mud hits her firmly in the back of the neck. “What the -- ”
“It was her!” Alice bursts out, pointing her muddy hands at Eleanor. “Mom did it!”
Eleanor gasps. “You little snitch!” she shouts, and dives at Alice, wrestling her into the mud as Alice shrieks with glee.
The display is unsanitary. The filth on their clothes will never fully wash out. M3-48 knows exactly what goes into fertilizer and wants no part of it on her.
A laugh pulls itself from her throat, and she wades in, tugging Eleanor off of Alice. “Oh, sweetheart,” M3-48 says. “You poor dear, betrayed so cruelly -- ”
She kisses Eleanor properly, dipping her low -- Alice makes exaggerated gagging noises at this horrifying parental display of affection. M3-48 looks up and winks at Alice, then drops Eleanor flat on her back in the mud.
Eleanor shrieks in dismay. “My hair -- Jan, I’ll kill you!” she shouts. Alice howls in delight as she tackles M3-48 full force, knocking them both into the mud. M3-48 laughs as she squelches into the dirt, too busy worrying about avoiding the handful of mud Alice slings at her to worry about how unsanitary it is.
She decides not to go back.
It isn’t a long drawn-out process. She wakes up one morning and watches Ellie get dressed, her movements slow and sleepy. She turns and smiles at Janice. “Hey there, pretty girl,” she says, curling back up again, fully dressed, next to M3-48. “Tell me to get up.”
“Get up,” M3-48 says, carding her fingers through Eleanor’s hair.
Eleanor’s eyes flutter shut as she tilts her head so that M3-48 can get at the right spot. “No,” she says, with an exaggerated pout. “I’m staying in bed.”
And like that, M3-48 decides. “Okay,” she says. She’ll stay here and be Janice and live with Eleanor and Alice in the Commonwealth. She can’t stop smiling. “Okay,” she says again, leaning down to kiss Eleanor’s hair.
“I’ll be late to work,” Eleanor complains. Her voice is sleepy and she yawns as she settles an arm around M3-48’s waist, snuggling closer.
“You really should get up,” M3-48 agrees. Her cheeks are beginning to ache, and she wants to cry or yell or something; her heart is pounding in her chest and her hand shakes as she smooths Eleanor’s hair away from her face.
Eleanor pouts. “You’re not making me get up,” she whines softly, her eyes fluttering shut. “It’s really all your fault, you… filthy seductress.”
M3-48 laughs. It comes out a little higher and more hysterical than she meant it to, and Eleanor frowns a little. “Jan? Is everything okay?” she asks, peering up at M3-48’s face.
“Filthy sleep-ductress,” M3-48 says. “I’ll accept that.” She kisses Eleanor’s cheek before burying her face in Eleanor’s hair.
M3-48 doesn’t realize she’s shivering until she feels Eleanor’s hand on hers. “Jan,” Eleanor says, sounding more alert now and a little worried. “Hey, pretty girl, is everything okay?”
M3-48 nods into Eleanor’s hair. “...Okay,” Eleanor says after a minute, still sounding concerned. “I love you.”
M3-48 doesn’t trust herself to speak. She closes her eyes and nods again.
It’s as simple as not showing up at the relay point. She’s simply “busy” all day. M3-48 scrubs the bathroom within an inch of its life, and the kitchen has never been cleaner. She weeds the garden so aggressively she pulls open a callus; later that night Eleanor scolds M3-48 about working to hard as she wraps a bandage around her hand.
One day past. Alice catches M3-48 on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floorboards. “Mom?” she asks doubtfully, standing on the bottommost step, chewing on her thumb the way she does when she’s nervous. “Is everything okay?” M3-48 would fight the entire Institute for her. She can’t answer, so she smiles and nods; eventually Alice joins her and they make a game out of it.
Two days past. M3-48 spends the day jumping at shadows. Every footstep is a courser come to claim her. Every sound is the relay. She complains of a headache and hides in her room all day. If coursers come, at least Eleanor and Alice will be safe.
Three days. She looks at her reflection in the mirror. “Designation M3-48,” she says. “My name is Janice.” They both sound wrong. She says them over and over, watching her face, the way her mouth moves and shapes each sound.
Four days. “Janice, Janice, Janice,” she chants to herself as she washes her face. “My name is Janice. I am Janice.” She feels guilty, taking a dead woman’s name, but -- Janice isn’t here to use it anymore. And this new person will honor Janice as best she can. By taking her life, she thinks. By using her death to get close to her wife and daughter. Those thoughts don’t help. She slams her hand hard against her leg until the pain drives the thoughts from her mind.
Five days. “I love you,” she bursts out abruptly, standing at the top of the stairs. Eleanor’s hair is piled on top of her head and the red apron she’s wearing over her favorite jeans is covered in white flour. There is flour in her hair and streaked down her cheek and stuck in her eyelashes. “I love you too,” Eleanor says, looking confused, before yelping in surprise and turning back to the oven. “Oh no,” she wails. “Oh no, my poor souffle!”
A week. Her name is Janice. She lives in the Commonwealth with her wife, Eleanor, and her daughter, Alice. She loves them and they love her.
Two weeks. She lies awake in bed next to Ellie, listening to her breathe. What will they do? Eleanor will age. Eleanor will grow old and tired. What will happen to Janice? What will happen to Alice? What will Eleanor do when she finds out? Will Janice have to leave? If she leaves, Janice thinks the pain of it might kill her. She left the Institute for this; leaving the Institute can’t take this from her. It can’t.
There is a sudden shock under her feet and the house shifts back and forth. Alice screams. Janice scrambles across the floor to Alice, scooping her up in and holding her close.
“What’s happening?” Janice shouts. The shaking has already subsided, and Eleanor is standing outside. It should be night, but she’s lit up like she’s standing in front of the sun, one hand shielding her eyes.
She is crying. “Janice, Janice, come here,” she calls.
“Stay here,” Janice says to Alice, then kisses her on the forehead. “Don’t move, we’ll be right back inside, okay?” Alice nods, eyes huge and frightened.
When she gets outside, it takes a long moment for Janice to realize what she’s looking at. “Oh,” she says. The blood is rushing in her ears. Her body feels like it doesn’t belong to her -- distantly she can tell that Eleanor has grabbed her hand, but she can barely feel it. “Oh,” she says again.
The CIT ruins are gone, replaced by a pillar of flame as the generators that birthed Janice and all of her siblings burns. There were repositories of petroleum stored in the ground -- Janice guesses the fire will burn for days.
She is free. There is nobody to come looking for her. There is nobody to take her home.
She thinks she might throw up. She can’t tell if the earth is still moving beneath her feet or if it’s just the shock making her dizzy. There were children, she thinks, and has to close her eyes for a second. The coursers would have killed me the way they killed Janice, she reminds herself. My name is Janice, and I live in the Commonwealth with my wife and my daughter, and the Institute can’t hurt me anymore. If she thinks it hard enough, she might even believe it, just a little.
“Look,” Ellie says softly. The light of the explosion reflects off the tears running down her face. Flaming debris is raining down across the Commonwealth, like thousands of shooting stars. “Make a wish.”
Janice squeezes Ellie’s hand and wishes as hard as she can.