R3-53 was just back from tracking down a rogue unit: he'd only finished washing the blood off when the order came to go down into the laboratories.
He passed through the places where humans in white lab coats worked, his head bowed respectfully, and onward through four locked doors. Finally, he found Dr. Snow, unit K4-74, and a human R3-53 didn't recognize.
"Unit R3-53," Dr. Snow said, "this is Dr. Finch. You are not to obey his orders. You are to keep him from escaping. And you are to obey K4-74 in everything."
"I told you," Finch said, his voice reedy. "I'm quitting. If you want to exile me, get it over with."
Dr. Snow nodded at K4-74 and left without a word. K4-74 pulled out a sharp blade.
"Unit R3-53," K4-74 said, "cut across your stomach. Avoid any long term damage. Do not hide your response."
Dr. Finch's breathing and heart rate sped up. An adrenaline reaction, surely, to seeing someone so similar to a human threatened.
R3-53 exposed his abdomen and took the knife from K4-74. The cut was only two milimeters long when Dr. Finch said, "Fine! I'll do it. I'll do it. Please tell him to stop." Sweat beaded on his forehead and he blinked a little too rapidly.
K4-74 gave the command, and R3-53 obeyed.
"This is what they gave me," Kitty says, and hands a piece of paper over to Nora.
Nora frowns. It's a rudimentary map, with a few nearby settlements marked on it, and an X marked with the legend, "the least of what father owed you."
"There were supplies there," Kitty says, "and this." She takes out a simple device with a tiny LED. "The instructions said to wait until it turned green, then get going. That's what I did."
Kitty's chosen name suits her: she's tiny and adorable. Nora asks, "And you didn't face any danger on your way here?"
Kitty shakes her head. Her ponytail bounces. "None. I saw a mirelurk once, but someone I couldn't see blasted it off."
That's four synths now with variations on the same story: a map left, tossed through an open window or hidden in their clothes, a trail of supplies ultimately leading to Fort Independence.
"Thanks, Kitty," Nora says. The kid, shyly, offers her a hug which Nora gladly accepts. "I'm glad they brought you here, and kept you safe."
"Me, too," Kitty says, and wrinkles her nose. "Would it kill them to hang out long enough to let me thank them in person?"
"Here's hoping not," Hancock says quietly behind Nora.
The only time R3-53 saw Dr. Finch show emotion were when he was being punished, up till now.
"I'll let you think about it," Dr. Snow had said, before leaving the room. "Unit R3-53, you know what to do if Dr. Finch refuses."
K4-74 lay on the table before them, motionless. Her relay chip had become damaged. Dr. Finch was ordered to fix it, without any other scientist's help.
"This is stupid!" Dr. Finch finally snapped. "I'm no doctor, I'm not even advanced systems! They're ordering me to kill her for no reason but to watch me squirm!"
2593 milliseconds pass, and R3-53 said, "Was I mislaid about your name, then?"
For a longer span of time, Dr. Finch stared at R3-53. Then he said, voice high, "Did you just make a joke?"
R3-53 didn't flinch, of course. He'd been trained out of such responses. Instead he said, "I am capable of field surgery, Dr. Finch. I can take out the chip for you."
"Can you?" The sudden interest in Dr. Finch's eye is... oddly gratifying. Perhaps R3-53 had learned to connect Dr. Finch's relief with the cessation of his own pain: the link between the two was plain enough, and frequently reestablished.
"I'm no scientist," R3-53 said. That much was clear enough.
"You're certainly smarter than some I've known, and more capable," Dr. Finch muttered. "Although that might be considered damning with faint praise."
Getting access to PAM was kind of a bitch, given that Desdemona is still pissed at Nora. At the same time, Desdemona isn't stupid, so access Nora got.
Not that it helped her a whole lot. "Data set invalid," PAM says, after taking forever chewing the data.
"Oh come on!" Nora does not thump her fist on any nearby surfaces. She's too classy for that. "This is the data we have, are you telling me it's impossible?"
"Data set invalid," PAM says again, with a hint of reproach. How dare Nora fault her logic.
Nora looks at her maps and timelines. Okay, yeah, it doesn't seem likely that just one person could manage to run around escorting four synths to her, each more than a few hours' walk from the others. An operation of that size would take at least six or more people, unless they could teleport, and then the support those people would need - you'd end up with an operation that Nora would hear about, one way or another.
She frowns and rewinds that thought. Unless. Unless they could teleport...
"You have to go," Dr. Finch told them, his face ashen. Above them, the explosions were louder and louder, coming close.
K4-74 only waited for long enough to ask R3-53, "Coming?" When he shook his head, she shrugged, said, "Suit yourself," and took off.
"I am not required to obey you," R3-53 told Dr. Finch. "My orders are to prevent your escape."
"From what?" Dr. Finch demanded. "The Institute is literally getting blown up! You have to go, unit R3-53, or you'll die here!"
"The same applies to you." Distantly, R3-53 noted that his voice was rising. "These were not my command parameters. I cannot let you escape."
The next explosion hits one of the armored doors, shaking the room. R3-53 caught himself, but Dr. Finch fell to his knees.
He looked up at R3-53, blinking. Hesitantly, he said, "What if I left with you?"
Before Dr. Finch finishes his sentence, R3-53 says, "These parameters are acceptable." He hoists a squawking Dr. Finch on his shoulder in a firefighter carry and hastens away.
The problem with tracking down someone who can teleport... well, it's right there in the question.
The first place Nora considers is the Institute's old location, but there's barely anything left of that. Michael would have been able to teleport there if the pad had still been active, probably.
So there's another teleporting device somewhere in her commonwealth. Isn't that dandy.
PAM did end up helping, unexpectedly, when she flagged up several exchange sites.
What these were, Nora had no idea until she got there to see a pile of broken technology and a tiny hill of glittering caps. "Doesn't anybody steal those?" Nora says, gesturing at the caps.
"Not if they like their kneecaps," says the settler who showed her the place. He seems a bit too cheerful about the idea. "You leave any piece of tech, plus caps, and it comes back fixed. That's how it works."
If Nora's mystery guy - or gal - turns up around here with regularity, there should be a pad close by. All Nora would have to do is find it and wait.
They had not escaped unscathed; R3-53 had only shallow injuries which, although numerous, healed quickly, but Dr. Finch took shrapnel to the back. R3-53 did his best to stabilize Dr. Finch, and it seemed he'd heal, but he would probably never have full range of motion again.
The first thing R3-53 told Finch when he woke up was, "I'm sorry."
Finch croaked, "You saved my life." Then, more alarmed, "Why can't I move my legs?"
Even after R3-53 explained Finch's injuries and how R3-53 was responsible for them indirectly, through failing to better protect Finch, Finch refused to cast any blame on R3-53. "You saved my life," he repeated, stubbornly.
Caring for Finch was repetitive and weirdly soothing, not unlike caring for his weapons, except that Finch was alive. Finch was oddly courteous about his care; he always thanked R3-53 for even the smallest action, and asked for assistance in the most polite terms. Probably this was due to Finch's embarrassment. R3-53 paid it little mind.
He did appreciate that Finch no longer tried to deter R3-53 from following his mission parameters. One time, when Finch asked, "What's on your mind?" R3-53 admitted that.
"The Institute is gone," Finch said, quiet. "Nobody is going to order you to hurt yourself, now."
That was undeniably true. It was a relief to hear - less because R3-53 was afraid of damage to himself, and more because R3-53 never enjoyed the evidence of fear in Finch's heart beat.
"Nobody will order me to hurt myself," R3-53 agreed, just for the vicarious pleasure of Finch's relief. That, too, was part of what made caring for him soothing: Finch's lessened pain felt better than using a stimpak.
Finch looked at R3-53 thoughtfully. "Do you miss having orders?" he asked.
R3-53 considered. "It was good to have a purpose," he said, slowly. Even if, bit by bit, he'd come to wonder if that purpose was real or worthwhile after all. Finch's scathing lectures about morality and wastefulness had crept into R3-53's mind.
This, too, made caring for Finch soothing: that it was like the opposite of all of R3-53's other missions. A mission to save, not to destroy.
Sometimes, it was as though Finch could read R3-53's mind. "I have an idea," Finch said. "Supposing that I could ascertain the location of synths in danger. Supposing that I sent you to escort them to safety."
R3-53's heartrate and breathing were elevated, despite his best efforts to the contrary. "What safety is there, with the Institute gone?" he asked.
Finch grimaced. "Please don't play stupid, R3-53. We've both heard the radio announcements."
"How?" R3-53 demanded. Unthinkable, to take this tone with a human, even if he'd expressly been told not to obey Dr. Finch. "My mission parameters prohibit leaving you for so long." R3-53's mission parameters were a thin sham, now with the Institute gone, but so far Finch had not called him out on it.
Finch's answering expression is unbearably smug. "R3-53, do you need to be reminded that I build relay interfaces?"
Nora's mystery person turns out to be a tall guy in a courser uniform. He has a gun aimed at Nora before she can say anything.
She raises her hands high. "Do you know who I am?" she tries not to smile, or look too much like she wants to tackle-hug him.
"Director Nora Bowman," the courser says. He has a weird sort of tone, like he's stage-whispering, a little sing-song. "Father's heir, protector of the Commonwealth."
Nora nods fast. "So you know I have absolutely no intention of hurting you?"
He looks at her. He's more expressive than most coursers she's met, but that's true of stone statues, too. "That might be a mistake on your behalf."
That... doesn't make a lot of sense. "If you think I'd hurt synths, why did you send all these guys my way? Not that I'm not grateful. I am, a lot." Something moves in the courser's face. Nora seizes on it. "They're all doing great. Kitty is really great at doing laundry, which is a skill I didn't know how much we needed until someone picked it up, and Mikey--"
She stops when he tenses. The most minute movement, as obvious as a full body seizure to someone who's gotten used to speaking courser. "You think we're human." His voice is flat. It sounds like an accusation.
Nora spreads her hands. "Well... duh. Did you think I'd be doing what I've done otherwise?"
He comes a little closer. His gun is still trained on her, but now she can tell his eyes are very blue. "Then tell me, Nora Bowman. Are we responsible for the things we've done? If we're not machines, how can we say we were just following orders?"
"Oh," Nora says, full of understanding, and an, "Oh, honey," slips out.
It was the wrong thing to say. As soon as the word comes out, the courser flinches away, then runs back to the pad; a flash, and he's gone.
"Shit," Nora says, to nobody in particular. She knew she should have brought Michael along for this.
He paces their little hideaway, aware that Finch is watching him.
"It's hardly in my best interest to suggest that you hear her out," Finch says at last. "And yet, the encounter seems to be weighing on you considerably."
He feels like he's going to burst, like something deep and nameless will crawl out of his chest if he's still for too long. "She was just curious," he says harshly. "Now she'll be satisfied."
"Amazing," Finch says, quietly. "All this work the Institute did on you, and you retain just as much capacity for self deception as an ordinary human."
He turns around sharply. "Am I human, Finch? There's a name, isn't it, for the kind of human who did the things I've done." Murder, if the synths were as human as Finch and Bowman. Worse than murder.
Finch opens his mouth, then visibly rethinks his words. "People can do bad things and be forgiven."
"If she can forgive me," he growls, "after the things I've done, I don't want her forgiveness."
"R3," Finch begins, then stops, looking at his face. "Do you want another name?"
"I don't see why that matters," he says.
Momentarily, there's silence. Then Finch says, idly, "You know, I used to think of your former colleague as Kara. Her designation nearly spelled that. You could be... Rese? Reese. If you found that a name you could connect to."
He freezes. Then he turns around and walks out. Part of his mind ticks items off a list: their hideaway is secure, Finch has abundant food and water and caps. Finch abhorred venturing outside, but in an emergency he could.
Reese. The name flickers and flashes in his mind like a meteorite, too far and hot to touch.
He dresses as a human, sometimes, to buy food food in nearby settlements, spending the caps Finch earned repairing equipment. He's learned to speak similarly to the locals, so as not to draw attention. Nobody has ever asked his name; he assumed he would say it's John. It's a common name.
John Reese. It's as good a name for a killer as anything else.
Nora doesn't drown her sorrows in drink anymore: instead, she cuddles her kids, at least those of them amenable to cuddling. That's pretty much just Emily and Shaun, although the others have really come along on the hugging front.
"I was stupid," Nora says. "I knew he was skittish, but I had to open my big mouth."
"He'll come around," Emily says firmly.
Nora has to admit that experience is on Emily's side. She lays her head over Emily's shoulder. "He better. Or we'll all hunt him down and cuddle him into submission."
Emily hugs her, then stiffens. "Is somebody calling for you?"
At his side, a frantic beeping sounds. Reese jerks upright and starts running.
"I'm the General," Nora says. "Somebody's always calling me." But she gets up: part of being the General means being available when you're needed.
She leaves the family room to find Kitty, her freckled face pale. "There's someone at the gate," Kitty says. "He's all bloody, and he's carrying someone."
The raiders are still there when Reese makes it to their hideout, but not for long. It takes him only a few seconds to get rid of them, and then he wishes he could have made their deaths last longer.
Because the alternative is to look at Finch, lying twisted and broken on the floor: alive for now, but beyond Reese's ability to keep him that way.
He kneels next to Finch. "What did they want?" He doesn't care about the answer, just wants to hear Finch's voice.
"I told them they could have the caps," Finch says. "They wanted my maps."
That the raiders knew about the maps Finch and Reese kept, the ones detailing the locations of synths who might need their help, is troubling. That they wanted the maps and ignored caps and supplies to search for them is worse. But Reese can't think about that right now.
"You need medical assistance," he says.
Finch's hand finds his and grabs for a moment. "Go to Bowman," Finch says. "She can utilize your skills better than I ever could. Bring her the maps."
Reese meets Finch's eyes. "I thought you knew that's not in my mission parameters," he says.
Finch is shaking. He must be in agony. But his voice betrays no sign of it as he says, "Your mission is going to be over soon, anyway. You'll need a new one."
Something spasms in Reese's chest. He flings himself up and rummages around. He doesn't have materials to make a travois and there's no time, anyway.
He can still do better than last time: he stabilizes Finch's wounds to the best of his abilities before picking Finch up in his arms.
At that, Finch makes a futile attempt at struggle. "What are you doing?"
"If I'm going to Nora Bowman," Reese says, determined, "you're coming with me."
Finch huffs softly. "I think," he says, "I might find less of a welcome there than you will. I'm not one of those she regards as her children - I'm one of the people who oppressed them."
"If she can't forgive you," Reese says, with a slight feeling of - what's it called? Deja vu. "Then I don't want her forgiveness."
"Are you okay?" Nora asks the guy in the blood-soaked courser uniform.
He tracks her gaze. "Hardly of the blood is mine," he says.
"Yeah, that's not what I asked," Nora says. "Look, I'm sorry I spooked you. I said the wrong thing, I do that a lot. Please let me make it up to you."
He looks at her, blank as only a courser can be. "You will continue to give him medical care?"
He stands at even stiffer attention, which she would have thought impossible. "Why?"
Nora considers. "Well, usually I'd do that for anyone showing up injured at my door, unless I have reasons to suspect they're a danger to me and mine."
Suddenly he's looming over her, coming further into her personal space than any courser she hasn't taught to hug. "What if they are a danger?"
Unfortunately for him, that just means she wants to hug him, bloody clothes and all. Still, she restrains herself. "I don't think he's going to do anything horrible while under general anesthesia," she says. "But is it him you're worried about?"
For a minute she worries he'll storm out again, but he looks into the clinic again.
"Do you want a chair?" Nora says suddenly. "You could come inside and sit next to him." She eyes him, tries to think of a tactful way to say it, then just opts for, "Maybe grab a shower first. I'm pretty sure I have a clean courser's uniform around here somewhere."
"What I wear doesn't matter," he says. Of course it doesn't.
It suddenly strikes Nora that she's being a dumbass. "Hey, what's your name? Designation. Whatever you call yourself."
For a long time he's quiet, long enough that she worries she offended him again. Then he says, quietly, "John Reese."
Well. Nora doesn't think she can be blamed for hugging Reese then, even if it is an absolutely terrible idea. "That's a great name," she tells him, wholeheartedly. "It suits you."
"It was Finch's idea." Is it her imagination, or is he softening a bit under the contact? Whatever. She'll take it.