"There isn't enough disinfectant in the world." Honora Telfer, sole survivor of Vault 111, backed away from the fetid remains of the Mirelurk Queen ineffectually wiping slime off her armour. "Why does everything have to spit?"

"Because the surface is a disgusting shit-hole, ma'am." The courser beside her replied, reloading his laser rifle as he scanned the swamp for more hostiles.

"I used to like seafood." She drew a knife from her boot to gut the monster and see whether it had any interesting loot. Her settlements were doing well, the scavenging teams were very productive, but it never hurt to check. The Commonwealth's huge menaces had to eat huge amounts to maintain themselves. She'd once found an intact aluminium baseball bat in a deathclaw's gullet.

"I wouldn't recommend indulging now." X6-88 advised, aware that surfacers ate anything. Including each other.

"I have no absolutely intention of doing so." Nora cut and dug, extracting an interesting melange of objects including a combat armour chest piece still identifiably green. "Gunners. We'll have to do another sweep of Quincy to make sure they haven't regrouped." She made a note in her pip-boy to remind her though her companion had yet to forget anything. "We used to have prawn cocktail when we went to the Playwright. Nate loved dinner theatre. We were going to go to Vegas for our honeymoon."

"Did you, ma'am?" He knew Father's mother chatted to distract herself when she was doing something unpleasant. When they were clearing Dunwich Borers, she reminisced on the legal system of Massachusetts with anecdotes about her law studies in between shotgunning enemies.

"Nate couldn't get leave. We had three days in a ritzy hotel in Boston before he shipped out to Alaska." She sighed, dumping the salvage into a cloth tote as it was too gooey for her backpack. The bag was a manufacturing product to use the endless garments she found strewn about too stained to be worn. The decent pieces were repurposed into bags or patchwork, the scraps boiled down into rag pulp or shredded for insulation. "We had lobster on our second and third nights."

"What did you have on the first night?" X6-88 was aware lobster was supposed to be a constituent of the bisque food paste available by request in the cafeteria on celebratory occasions. He had sampled the flavouring once and could not decide whether it was old fish or off cream. It hadn't tasted as bad as mirelurk smelled so perhaps the flavour wasn't completely analogous.

"Sex." Her reply startled him enough he looked at her instead of the perimeter. She was smiling wistfully, watching something only she could see. X6-88 waited patiently. It didn't happen often, her absence, she was usually firmly in the present despite all she had lost. Nora... the Director's mother was a competent field agent.

She chuckled softly after a little while, shouldering the tote with its noisome contents. Giving him a nod, she headed to the workstation and began the tedious process of making the settlement fit for occupation. Tedious to X6-88, at least. He guarded her while she assembled, wired, and built. The Minuteman General, her other identity with which he was not comfortable, had almost single-handedly remade the Commonwealth into something habitable.

Why she wanted to expend the effort escaped him. She should be concentrating on the Institute, on her future duties, not digging pyrrhicly in the radioactive morass. Early on he had suspected her of sentimentality, of wanting to rebuild so she could regain what she had before the bombs fell. After they had rescued yet another filthy farm from annihilation the courser had asked her outright her reason for not letting the surface die.

'Entropy' had been her reply. The Institute was an imperfectly closed system. It was slowly haemorrhaging resources, accruing inefficiencies, and becoming inbred. The process was slow, so gradual those inside the bubble likely hadn't realised the extent of the problem. But when the Director had shown her around, proudly sharing his life's work with his mother, she had done a head count, later backed up with demographic data. The Institute's facilities were expanding as was its synth population. Its human population was static. Stagnation is death.

He hadn't believed her until she had claimed the power plant in Nuka-World after eliminating the raiders infesting the area. She had returned to escort an engineering team to the amusement park, where they had decommissioned the plant and salvaged literal tons of electronics and other essential equipment. All neatly shipped back via the monorail.

No more blackouts. No more jury-rigged repairs. They had refit and supply security for years, and what the Institute didn't need went to the surface settlements, which caused an upswing in production, which in turn meant a more robust militia presence. And that allowed the upscaling of the water filtration operations Nora had seeded across the Commonwealth. Water was life.

Water bought salvage. Water bought ammunition. Water bought information. Water, and the trade thereof, gave the Director's mother control over thousands of people. X6-88 was quietly impressed about that. Most of those people were maggots but some had skills useful to the Institute. Dozens of projects in abeyance because of personnel or power shortages had been restarted under the Minutemen flag.

"That should do it." Nora straightened, inspecting the beacon before flicking on the switch. Her pip-boy picked up the transmission. She had a team ready to begin the first phase of building at the Murkwater Construction Site and a provisioner on standby. Once the basic amenities were up, another team would transfer in to install the huge generator then missile turrets and water purifiers. Then a few of the hydroponics experiments Biosience was keen to try.

"Do you wish to return to the Institute, ma'am?" X6-88 asked, not saying he'd go happily to recommissioning to forget this bog.

"Direct to my quarters, please. I don't want to track muck through the halls." She moved over to him to stand shoulder to shoulder.

It was a courtesy, he understood. She never called for a relay herself, always allowing him the command when they travelled. X6-88 had been tasked by Father to protect his mother; a daunting mission. Nora was not amenable to orders and was a juggernaut of destruction when threatened. But she listened to him. All he had to do was ask, and since he had been assigned to her she hadn't travelled with anyone else.

He liked that.

He liked her.

He didn't like her wasting her life trying to wash the unclean. X6-88 wanted to keep Nora safe.

For the good of the Institute.

Not for... other reasons.

Like the way she smiled at him.

Smiled for the simple joy of his company as though he was a real person.