What do you see inside the mirror?
And what would you accept for an answer?
Once you figure it out
The question remains but there isn’t a doubt
- Sierra Hull, “The In-Between”
He’s not entirely certain how he ended up here. He’s read that stress can do funny things to the mind, can cause you to black out traumatic events or forget things you don’t want to know. Given that the Institute was clearly trying to create artificial people, it stands to reason that his inorganic brain would react the same as an organic one.
Whatever the reason, the last thing he remembers before waking up this morning is two knights approaching him in the missile silo, weapons drawn, calling him a synth. And then – everything is blank.
He hopes he didn’t hurt them. Danse might be a monster, an abomination, but he’s not a traitor. He wonders what M7-97 was – or is.
Somewhere in the struggle he obtained a file with his picture in it, or at least the face of the synth he used to be. Inside the file is a single sheet of paper. Half of the information is redacted, blacked out, but the important things remain: Institute designation M7-97. Some scientific speak about the markers in his DNA that identified him. Orders to bring him in to report to Elder Maxson.
It doesn’t say that he’s to be eliminated, but why else would they bring him in? He wishes he could remember running. He wishes he could go back and try again.
Maxson was going to have him exterminated; he doesn’t doubt that. But he had the chance to go to his death with honor and instead he panicked, some animal instinct taking him over and sending him to ground like a mole rat.
He sits in the bunker, on the floor of the back room, his laser pistol in his hand, and debates putting the barrel in his mouth and just ending all of this. It’d be so easy – just pull the trigger and he wouldn’t have to debate this with himself. And yet –
Why did they program this desire in him to live? To preserve his own worthless life at all costs? What purpose does it serve?
He’s spent two days in this bunker, and he still can’t figure out if he’s the monster, or if it’s them, the scientists who made him.
Then again, there’s enough atrocity to spread around.
There’s the ding of the elevator and he startles, the hand that holds the gun dropping to his side. He looks at it for a long moment then sets it down gently on the damp floor. Whoever has come down here is undoubtedly here for him.
To kill him.
His knees shake as he stands. He wants to go to his death willingly, bravely – it’s his salvation, his chance to uphold the Brotherhood’s ideals even when it means his own personal sacrifice. But it’s not going out in a blaze of glory that waits behind the wall, and maybe that’s why his feet don’t want to cooperate. No, what waits for him is execution, the ignoble death of a traitor.
His very existence marks him an enemy and selfishly, all he can think is it’s not fair.
The protectron he turned on to keep him safe while he figured out what to do begin shooting the moment whoever it is steps off the elevator. He stands still, desperately wanting to grab his pistol and join the firefight, to defend himself even as he knows that it’s fruitless.
If one Brotherhood solider is hurt because of him, he’s merely proving himself an abomination. It’s an impossible situation, and so he stands as still as he can and listens as the protectron drops heavily to the ground, the whine of metal on concrete alerting him that it’s out of commission. The turret starts up, the rapid blasts of laser fire causing whoever it is to dodge back behind a pillar with a curse.
He knows the voice, but Danse can’t figure out who it is, not right now. All he seems capable of is standing, still and quiet and clenching and unclenching his hands. He hopes his death will be quick, with no long, drawn-out build-up to it.
He wonders what happens to synths when they die.
There’s an explosion behind him that makes the glass window at his back vibrate. For nearly a minute his ears can’t seem to recover from the sound of the blast. Then he hears a shower of sparks still falling to the floor, and quiet footsteps approaching him. They come through the cavern and into the door, and when he turns, there’s Momoko O’Sullivan.
Of course Maxson sent her, the prick.
Danse flinches as his own disloyal thought, at thinking so harshly of the man who’s been his friend, but then again, that man sent someone to kill him. Even if he does deserve to die because of his origin – and Danse doesn’t inherently disagree with the logic of that – the fact that a friend of his, his commanding officer, made the order and didn’t do it himself still grates.
The way she looks at him, the lids of her eyes are heavy, the lashes creating dark shadows across the tops of her cheeks – there’s a dull ache in his chest that he doesn’t recognize. A vicious, traitorous impulse takes him; though it’s wrong, he wishes she would spare him, although whether it’s because he’s afraid to die or because he doesn’t want her to have to kill him, he couldn’t say.
“I’m not surprised Maxson sent you. He never liked to do the dirty work himself,” he says with a sigh. The words hang heavily between them. Of course Maxson did it this way; it’s exactly the type of loyalty test the Elder is fond of. If she kills him, then she’s worthy of her rank, or maybe his. And if she doesn’t –
Danse won’t entertain that thought. He can’t. It’s too dizzying to think of life untethered to the Brotherhood. He doesn’t even remember a life before he was an Aspirant. Did he even have one?
Knight O’Sullivan stands before him, her small frame bulky in her combat armor. The Brotherhood symbol on her chest seems too big for how small her armor is, how tight the back must be to keep her safe. For such a tiny woman she’s always been so fearless, so willing to charge in.
He hopes she’ll make it fast, but it appears she has other ideas. She looks up at him, and for a moment Danse would swear he sees a tear in one eye, but maybe it’s just a trick of the light because when she blinks it’s gone.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
There it is, the question he can’t answer. Or at least, one of many. Her face is so confused, so betrayed, and part of him wants to lie, to tell her he was up to something nefarious. It would make things easier for her, he thinks.
But he wasn’t built to lie.
“Because…” he starts, swallows. The lump in his throat makes it difficult to speak. “I didn’t know. Until Quinlan got that listing decoded, I thought synths were the enemy.”
I still think they’re the enemy. Or maybe they’re – we’re – all just misunderstood.
“I never expected to hear that I was one of them.” O’Sullivan nods at this, her small face blank as she digests his words. Her eyes don’t move from him and she’s coiled tight as a spring, but her weapon is holstered and he wonders again what’s happening here.
He doesn’t know why he’s telling her this, except that he wants someone to know. He wants to leave something behind, some part of the truth.
Someone need to know that he would never betray the Brotherhood willingly. Maxson should be the one here, but of course he isn’t, and much as he wishes it wasn’t her, his protégé, he also trusts her to bear that message.
“’If it wasn’t for Haylen, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” O’Sullivan says, her voice thoughtful. “I had no idea how to find you.”
Enough time is wasted, he thinks. He’ll never be glad to die, not like this, but at least he’s told someone the truth. He’s sorry she’s got to be the one to deliver the end, but at the same time – he’s glad he was able to tell her. After all they’ve been through, if it can’t be Maxson, he’s glad it’s her. So he asks the question he already knows the answer to.
“So what are your orders? Does Maxson even want me alive?”
The mad giggle that escapes her is humorless, manic. He knows that she doesn’t want to do this – who would want to kill their brother-in-arms? – but the lunatic sound of it drives the point home. That ache in his chest again, the tightness and the misery – return.
It should be Maxson. It would have been right.
“Of course,” he says, giving her a moment to breathe. O’Sullivan claps a hand over her mouth and the giggle dies slowly, creeping around her hand. It takes a long time for her to settle, and when she does, he can see the strain on her face. He hates himself for doing this to her.
“No,” she agrees when she’s finally calm again, and though he knew the answer before the pain of it is still visceral, hateful. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.
He won’t allow himself to hope. “It seems obvious to me.”
The image of Cutler, misshapen and massive and vicious after the FEV injection dances behind Danse’s eyes. Yes, it is obvious. He knows where this road leads.
Unbidden, his body sighs, as if it knows how precious few breaths are left to it. Does he even need to breathe? There’s so much he’ll never know, so many questions that will go unanswered. Still, he can’t let this drag out.
“Look, I’m not oblivious to the fact that we’re good friends and this must be very difficult for you. I wish Maxson had sent someone else.” A half-truth; maybe he has learned to lie. He’s grateful it’s her, that he could tell her that he didn’t know, that he could unburden himself of the truth before it’s lost forever.
But he hates his commanding officer for doing this to her. Her eyes – usually so hard to read – are deep in her face. The strain of this must be killing her.
“I’m a synth,” he says, softening his voice, the truth of it sinking in for what feels like the first time. “Which means that I must be destroyed.”
She looks away from him, eyes casting around the room as if there might be some magic out, a secret tunnel that might take her away from him, away from this conversation and her duty to the Brotherhood. He gentles his voice still further, hoping the tone doesn’t muddy the message. He finds now he wants to just get this over with.
“If you disobey your orders, you’re not only betraying Maxson, you’re betraying the Brotherhood of Steel and everything it stands for. Synths –“ he swallows. “Synths can’t be trusted. Machines were never meant to make their own decisions.”
It’s true, his blood thrums in his veins. It’s true. It’s why he’s always been so good at taking orders. It’s why he’s trying to convince her to kill him and not running deeper into the wilds of the Commonwealth, or heading north where he might be safe.
“They need to be controlled.”
She looks back at him, her eyes flashing, and this time he knows he can see tears in her eyes. Her fists, held tightly at her sides, clench and unclench. Her nostrils flare as if she’s angry, and Danse feels a flickering in his gut. He’s almost got her there. If he can just hit her where it hurts, with the knowledge of how her world was lost, maybe they can be finished and she can put a bullet in his head and at last he can sleep.
If he can just make her hate him.
“Technology that’s run amuck is what brought the entire world to its knees and humanity to the brink of extinction. I need to be the example. Not the exception.”
One tear catches the light and makes its way slowly down her cheek, glistening against her pale skin. Down here, in the flickering fluorescent light and dark shadow of the cave behind her, she looks so impossibly small.
She pulls her gun out and he lets out a sigh, though whether he’s feeling relief or fear, he doesn’t know.
Maybe it doesn’t matter.
O’Sullivan looks at the gun in her hand as if she doesn’t know where it came from. Stares at it, blankly, for so long that Danse finds himself wondering what she’s going to do with it. Then she releases the cartridge at the bottom and lets the ammo fall out, onto the floor. The bullets drop with dull clinks against the floor and his traitorous heart begins to speed up.
“I won’t do it,” she says softly, so softly he almost can’t hear her. He takes an involuntary step forward, and she takes one back, equalizing the distance between them again. She re-holsters her weapon and speaks again, more loudly this time. “I won’t do it. The empathy you’re showing me right now – that’s a human emotion.”
She looks back up at him again, and her face is calm. Serene.
He can’t let her do this. It’s treason.
Danse takes another step forward and she doesn’t move. He crosses the distance between them, one step at a time, and he can feel how she wants to run but she stands firm, quivering as though she might shatter. He takes her hand between his own, and he can feel the pulse of her heart beat in her thumb. Her shaking slows, then stops, and he meets her eyes.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do.” He has to make her understand, before he starts to think this insane idea might work. He has to be put down before he turns tail and runs again like the coward he is.
Before he starts to think he belongs here, an organic machine that exists in a half-state between life and death, where he has no business being.
He has to lie, and so he does.
“I’ve made my decision,” he says, still looking deeply into her eyes. All he sees is himself, a hateful and terrible abomination, reflected in her eyes.
“I’m ready to accept the consequences of my true identity. Of…what I am.”
Her eyes bore into his like two black holes, sucking him in a bit at a time, and he’s powerless to look away.
“Well I’m not,” she says, her voice very quiet but still firm. He lets out a rush of hot air, frustrated. She snatches her hand back from him and turns as if she’s going to leave, as if this will somehow settle things.
“Don’t you understand?” His hand is on her shoulder and he wrenches it, turning her back to face him, and when she does her eyes are blazing, hot and furious. “Maxson’s ordered you to execute me, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand in your way.”
“You think this is right?” O’Sullivan lifts her hands and hits him in the chest, hard, harder than he thought such a small woman could hit. She pulls back, forms her hands into fists and hits him again, even harder this time, and he’d be worried about explaining the bruises if he expected to live through the next hour. Telling people a woman her size hit him this hard would definitely get him made fun of around the barracks.
“No,” he says, wishing he’d said yes. Maybe it would make her finally do this thing, end this tragic drama that he’d forever be known for.
“Exactly,” O’Sullivan looks triumphant. “The Brotherhood – they’re wrong, Danse.” Her hands drop to her sides, still clenched in fists. She’s so tightly wound she looks like she might explode. “You’re the most – the – you’re so dedicated to their ideals you’re willing to be executed in this fucking bunker and they’re actually willing to let that happen? To make it happen?”
He doesn’t have an answer for that, and it wouldn’t matter anyway because she’s on a tear now, out of control, ripping the chest piece from her body and tossing it to the ground in a scramble of leather straps and metal buckles. She slices one of her fingers on the buckle but doesn’t seem to notice.
“If the Brotherhood really believes in executing its own soldiers for things beyond their control, I don’t want to be a part of it,” she says, and the crazy thing is, Danse believes her. The chest piece lands face down on the floor, and she pushes her foot into it, scuffing the Brotherhood’s symbol across the concrete with a loud scrape that hurts his ears.
“You can’t – you can’t be serious –“
“So you’re a synth,” she says, her voice calming. “I just found out my son is the goddamn director of the Institute, Danse. So if you’re an abomination, what the hell does that make me?”
This was…not the way this was supposed to go. He opens his mouth once and closes it, then does it again, and the third time he realizes he looks like a fish and keeps it closed, gritting his teeth together tightly.
Because she’s right. If he’s a monster created in a lab, what of the family that helped make that possible? Even if –
“But you don’t have any control over that!”
“That’s my point, you self-sacrificing asshole.” O’Sullivan’s fists are up again, and they hit him square in the chest, in the same places she hit him before, and the force and surprise of it knocks him back a step. “It’s not your fault you were made in the Institute, and it’s not my fault my baby was stolen and grew up to be – to be –“
She doesn’t finish the thought but instead lets out an anguished cry that makes him hurt again. Danse swallows, trying to keep himself on task, trying to keep from losing it entirely.
It sounds so tempting, so alluring to believe that he deserves to live just because he had no say in what he is. And yet he knows where that thinking leads.
“If you won’t do it…” he looks meaningfully at his discarded laser pistol, behind her on the floor, and O’Sullivan’s eyes follow his gaze. There’s that flash of fire on her face again, and she darts around, scooping it up and holding it disdainfully in one hand.
“Like hell you will,” she says, her voice shaking.
“I can’t believe you’d risk your life just to keep something like me wandering this planet. You – I – we don’t even know what I’m capable of. What my programming is.”
“You really don’t know?” She hits him again, and with the pistol in her hand it really hurts this time. He finds himself wishing she would just kill him already so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the reality that a tiny woman gave him a bruised rib.
Instead, he shakes his head, because it’s true: he doesn’t know. He can’t think of one good reason for her to risk everything – her mission, her very existence – just for him.
“I’ve already lost everything,” she says, and she reaches up to grip his chin between two deceptively strong fingers, forcing his eyes to look at her. He can see the truth reflected in her eyes; she’s entirely alone. “My family, my entire world – it’s all gone and it’ll never be back. My son is a grown man, and he –“
O’Sullivan takes a deep breath, so deep it makes her look taller for a moment before she deflates back to her regular stature.
“You’re my friend. I can’t lose that. I can’t lose you, not when I could do something to save you.”
He’s about to answer, but she steamrolls over him, her voice louder than his thoughts.
“You’ve risked your lives for everyone, Danse. You’ve done everything for them, you’ve given everything – you’re willing to die here for them. You’re more human than Maxson will ever be, no matter where you came from.”
There’s the feeling of something inside him breaking. He doesn’t believe she’s right, but her conviction is wearing him down. If nothing else, he’s too tired to keep fighting with her.
Maybe after she’s gone he’ll just take care of the orders himself anyway.
He doesn’t dare tell her that, though. Instead he reaches up and pulls off the holotags from around his neck. She opens her hand and he presses them into her palm, curling her fingers around them.
“Give these to Maxson,” he says. He doesn’t know what he’s doing; it’s like flying, or falling. “Tell him you completed your mission and he’ll believe you.”
The relief on O’Sullivan’s face is amazing; he blinks in the radiance of her eyes. Is this what she looked like before the bombs fell, so open and happy? What a change. He’s not sure he’s ever seen her really smile; her usual expressions are a collection of grim smirks and set jaws.
“Thank you.” She turns, takes four steps, then twists back around to fix him with a glare, the expression one that he feels more comfortable with. This is the type of face he’s used to from her.
“I’ll be keeping this,” she says, waving his laser pistol. “So you don’t get any ideas.”
Danse smiles without meaning to, a real smile that seems to start on his face before his brain tells his body to do it. She has no idea the number of ways he can kill himself down here after she’s gone – there’s the protectrons, the turrets – yes, she disabled them but he can always fix them. There’s a sturdy beam overhead, he could hang himself.
North of them is the Revere Satellite Array, which is probably still overrun with muties. It wouldn’t be a pleasant way to go, but it’d be easy enough to walk in there and let them mow him down. Maybe he’d get lucky and get blown up by a suicider –
Yes, there’s plenty of ways to go, but somehow she’s gotten into his brain, and as she walks back through the main room of the bunker and the elevator doors close behind her, he thinks he won’t be using any of them.