Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of Bethesda Game Studios. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's note: This fic came from a random plot bunny that bit me while I was writing "On the Outside." I'm not entirely enthused about the way this story came out; I had almost no feel for it at all while I was writing it, but oh well. Thanks as always to the lovely LadyKate, who was willing to beta in a fandom she doesn't follow!
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
--"Charge of the Light Brigade," Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The Wasteland sun rose high and hot in the scorching morning sky. The land below it was dry, dead: the arid wind—as hot as the air from a blast furnace—blew in among the branches of blackened, leafless trees, rattling the bare limbs against one another; clouds of dust skirled here and there along the cracked remains of roadway, dancing among broken blocks of rubble and bones long since laid bare. Except for the dust, all was stillness, silence and death.
Across this barren land a lone figure came walking. The man was tall, with broad shoulders; he wore metal armor that must have been boiling in the heat of the sun, with the stock of a shotgun jutting up over his right shoulder. His regular, mechanical stride suggested someone driven to the far edge of exhaustion. He moved as if he were fleeing something, as if no matter his own weariness he could not stop or even slow down—even for a moment—lest his pursuer fall upon him. An observer would have found him a fitting denizen for this lifeless land, for one look at the rotted, decayed condition of his face, the sparse and patchy hair and the peeling lesions along his arms and neck, suggested that he himself was a dead man walking.
Charon was fleeing, fleeing for his life in a very real way, though the danger he feared was not physical. The sun had set and risen again at least once since the battle in the ruins of the Red Racer tricycle factory, perhaps more than that, but he had not counted. They had not known that the factory had been taken over as an Enclave encampment when they had stopped to explore it; blind, he and his mistress had walked right into the trap. She had shouted at him to save himself, as the Enclave men surrounded her; the very next moment, a plasma rifle burst had struck her squarely in the chest. Charon had not waited to determine her fate, though he could not imagine his mistress could have survived; she had given him a command, and he had no choice but to obey. He had turned and run, with Dogmeat bounding at his side, as the bulky forms of the power- armor-wearing soldiers closed in around her. If she had not died immediately from the rifle blast, she must surely be dead now.
Dogmeat had left him as soon as they were clear of the factory grounds, setting off toward Vault 101 with a purposeful lope that Charon found himself envying bitterly. Since that time, Charon had been walking. Alone.
Grief would come later—if it came at all. Charon had known and lost many holders of his contract in his time—to death, to sale, to theft—and very, very rarely had he grieved for one….
Her eyes had met his. Across the room, her eyes had met his, and she had shouted a command. Not to save her; to save himself.
Something flickered, but it was only a flicker. There was no room within him for more. Not yet. No room for anything but fear.
It was monstrous, a gut-clenching atavistic terror that rose up from the back of his mind, threatening to roll over him and overwhelm his consciousness. It was that fear that pressed him onward, looming to engulf him whenever he rested or faltered, driving him to push himself long past the point of collapse. As long as he kept moving, he kept it at bay; when he stopped, the fear swallowed him. So he walked, moving forward with no clear idea of where he was going, and without stopping to count the cost.
His mistress had died without passing his contract to anyone else. Which meant that no one held his contract.
Just thinking about it caused the panic to leap up; Charon cursed viciously between his teeth, throwing himself into each stride, forcing himself to concentrate on the play of muscle and bone in his limbs. His boots pounded the dry earth beneath him as if he were grinding the fear beneath his feet at each step, trampling it into submission. His heart was hammering in his chest. His breath came far too quickly. No one held his contract. His purpose—his entire reason for being—was now vacant. The lodestone by which he had lived his life was gone.
Always before, when the holder of his contract died, there had been provisions made beforehand so that it had passed at once to someone else. Or else, if they were killed, whoever had done the killing took up his contract and thus, his service. Only once before had there been no immediate successor, and his fear at that time had made him so desperate he had landed in Ahzrukhal's employ. As evil a man as Ahzrukhal was, he had been willing to take Charon on at a time when he very badly needed someone to do so. And a bad master was better than none.
Questions thronged at his heels. Where do I go? What do I do now? Who will give me orders? Who will tell me my mission? What can I— How can I— Where will I— He drove himself on, striving to outpace them, clinging to the last order he had been given. To save himself. So he walked. To where, he did not know, nor trouble to think.
He might have fled forever; he did not hear the rustle among the dried grass stems, nor the hot, panting breath of the creature that stalked him. He was so lost in his own mind that he was unaware of the yao guai until claws raked across his back.
The impact did not hurt—the claws screeched off his metal armor harmlessly—but it knocked him sideways, jarring him back to reality with a brutal thump. He whirled, feeling the creature's reeking breath on the back of his neck, and struggled to bring up his shotgun, but the beast was too close. A single swipe of its paw sent the weapon spinning aside. Charon threw himself after it, but the yao guai pounced, and he was forced to skitter back. The beast stood between him and the shotgun now, growling, and slowly began to pace toward him.
Charon scrambled to his feet, sizing up the creature. The yao guai appeared to be young, but not in the best of health; mucus drooled from its nose and matted its fur, and unhealed sores clustered along its legs and sides. Its bearlike head was lowered, and its brown fur bristled along its back. Charon's fear fell away from him at the prospect of a physical opponent, and he pulled his combat knife.
"Come on, then," he snarled, holding the creature's burning green eyes. "You want some?"
His mistress had ordered him to work long-range, probably in a misguided effort to protect him, but Charon's melee skills were strong as well; what was left of his skin prickled in anticipation. The yao guai paced toward him, then lunged, striking out with its long, dagger-like claws—each one as long as one of Charon's fingers. Charon managed to evade, lashing out with his knife, and slashing a long, dripping red line down the side of the creature's head. The yao guai bellowed in pain, its head whipping back. Foamy saliva dripped between its long, slavering canines, mixing with blood in the dust. First blood to me.
With a series of coughing barks, the yao guai circled, then pounced again, striking with its long, powerful front legs. Sick as it was, the creature was unbelievably fast; Charon tried to evade this time but could not get out of the way. Its claws clanged off his shoulder protection and sent him reeling. He did not fall, but it was a very near thing. He struggled, regaining his balance; then it was his turn to attack, extending himself in a wild lunge that carved into the creature's right shoulder. The yao guai bellowed again and recoiled, growling that hacking, ugly growl. It circled away again, but Charon could see that it was favoring its injured leg heavily. The fire in its eyes gleamed bright malice.
"Come on," Charon snarled again. "Once more. Last time pays for all."
The yao guai snarled back, slavering. It crouched, and then sprang at him again; but it staggered on its bad leg, and collapsed to the ground. Charon fell on it instantly, slamming his knee into its flank and sinking his knife into the side of its neck. Blood gushed out in a hot stream, washing over his hands, painting the knife red. The creature gurgled a moment, then the last of its foul breath whooshed out of its lungs and it lay still.
Charon waited until it had stopped moving before drawing his knife out of the creature's neck and wiping it clean on its shaggy, ragged pelt. He stood, looking down at it for a long moment, watching the rill of blood dripping down its fur into the hard-baked dust of the Wasteland soil. I needed that, he thought, then knelt to butcher the beast. No sense letting the meat go to waste.
Inside, a great cloud had lifted. The physical confrontation had jolted him out of his head and enabled him to think again. The anxiety was still there, but it was manageable now. Charon heaved a deep breath, took hold of himself, and tried to rationally appraise the situation.
The holder of his contract was gone. Dead, most likely, he thought, laying it out for himself in small, rational steps as he hacked through the yao guai's thick hide and carved away at the meat beneath. That was a terrible thing—he could still feel the fear lurking at the back of his mind and tamped it down ruthlessly--but it was by no means the end of the world. This had happened to him once before, and he had simply gone and sought out a new one. He'd done it before, he could do it again.
Maybe…maybe even a different holder this time, he thought. A better one than Ahzrukhal.
Yes. A better one than Ahzrukhal. There was something that seemed faintly blasphemous to him about daring to choose—to evaluate the holders of his contract in this fashion—but there was nothing in the terms of his employment that said he was not entitled to do this. Nothing, he reminded himself sternly, taking hold of the queasiness in his gut. Once someone did hold his contract, he was bound to obey them, but there was no term or condition that said he could not choose for himself.
The last time, it had not even occurred to Charon to attempt to evaluate the character of the man he had approached to take his contract. The very idea—that it mattered whether his employer was a good or a bad man—would have seemed totally ludicrous to him; Charon could not have imagined anything less relevant. All that had mattered to him the last time was that Ahzrukhal was willing to take him on. He had learned better since then. A lot better. After serving Ahzrukhal, followed immediately by his former mistress—and seeing the contrast between the two of them—Charon had come to realize how important his employer's character was. Serving Samantha had not been without its difficulties, but it was rain in the desert compared to serving Ahzrukhal. His fingers tightened on his knife, as he swore silently that this time he would take more care with whom he chose.
But who? Charon drew a deep breath, feeling the panic recede a bit more. There was something about what he was doing now—going through things logically, thinking through things step by step—that was soothing in and of itself. He was developing a plan now, not just flailing blindly. He began tracing absent designs in the dust with his combat knife. Blood dripped down the blade and pooled on the hard, parched earth as he turned the possibilities over in his mind, pondering who he might trust to take his contract.
Lucas Simms, the Sheriff of Megaton. That was the first name that came to mind. His former mistress had always spoken highly of the sheriff, and he had seen the very real respect between the two of them. Lucas was among those fighting what the one called "Three Dog" termed "the Good Fight," in his valiant struggle to keep Megaton a safe and orderly place for its inhabitants. He was also an honorable man, and would not be likely to order Charon to do the kinds of things that Ahzrukhal had. Of course, there was always the possibility that Simms might not accept him. The first two people he had offered his contract to last time had turned him down, claiming they had no room in their set-up for him—though Charon had suspected that at least one of them had declined his service because he was a ghoul. If Simms turns me down, then who?
Three Dog. Charon considered the possibility and rejected it. Three Dog seemed also to be a man of honor, but he was close with the Brotherhood of Steel. Charon knew that the Brotherhood did not look kindly on ghouls. Their attitude made no difference to him; things were the way they were, that was all. His former mistress's anger at those who treated him with what she perceived as lack of respect had always faintly mystified him. It was nothing to be upset about; it simply was. But he suspected Three Dog might be unwilling to take him on because of it. Three Dog himself might hold no animosity toward ghouls, but he would not want to anger his protectors. Not Three Dog then. Who else?
He scratched some more designs in the dust. The earth was dark where the blood had soaked in. Sonora Cruz. The head of the Regulators was another one fighting the Good Fight, and fighting it in a very direct way. He had heard rumors that Simms himself was actually a member of the Regulators, and while he did not know if that was true, he knew that Simms and Cruz were both struggling to bring law and order to the chaotic Wasteland. He did not know if the Regulators had anything against ghouls, but he had never heard that they did. Yes. Cruz might be a safe choice.
Of course, she might not take him on either, he reflected, musing over what he knew of the Regulators' association. The Regulators seemed to be fairly loosely organized, with their members largely acting independently; Cruz might not be able to find a place for him. Charon could act independently—there was nothing in the terms of his contract that forbade it, as long as the holder of his contract clearly specified what his guidelines were and what his limits were—but Cruz might not understand that, or might not be able to give him orders in such a way as to make that possible. She might turn him down for that reason, or be unable to fulfill her contractual obligations. And if she will not take me on…then who?
After a bit more thought, a third choice came to him. Hannibal Hamlin. The leader of the escaped slaves from the former Temple of the Union, and their new colony at the Lincoln Memorial. It was clear that they would need all the help they could get, defending themselves against not only the super-mutants who swarmed the D.C. area but also the slavers, who were bound to launch an assault on their colony. Hannibal Hamlin would be in need of strong fighters. Again, he might be prejudiced against ghouls, but Charon had detected no prejudice in the time that he and his former mistress had spent with the man. He may take me on then if the other two do not.
Charon pushed himself to his feet, almost sighing in relief. He had a plan now, a course of action mapped out. I will try Simms first, then Cruz, then Hamlin. Surely one of them will take me on. He was not that far from Megaton, he calculated; he could probably make it there within the next two days. The empty corpse of the yao guai lay at his feet; Charon sheathed his combat knife and began folding the meat into a piece of hide for safe keeping. Cooking the yao guai meat would preserve it longer, perhaps long enough for him to get back to Megaton where it could be dried. There was a relief in having the business of his contract settled in his own mind; to turn instead to the normal, comforting, day to day problems of existence. Yao guai meat was valuable, almost as good as Psycho in strengthening one for combat, and unlike Psycho it worked on ghouls just as well as it did smoothskins. I should preserve this, certainly. Drying it on top of my former mistress's house will work. He wondered with little interest if Simms would let him keep the house, and where he would have Charon bunk if not, then dismissed it; such questions were not his business, but Simms's, or would be as soon as Simms had accepted his contract….
He didn't have his contract.
The thought burst on him with the concussive power of a frag grenade. Charon's knees gave under him and he dropped straight to his heels, almost falling over. He caught himself on his hands, breathing hard, the shallow quick pants of a marathon runner. He could not have been more shocked—more appalled—if he had woken up to find that the sun had gone out. It was that fundamental a violation of the terms of his existence. He didn't have his contract. His former mistress had always carried it on her person, and he had not been there to retrieve it at her death. Therefore, it was gone.
The black tide he had thought he had safely defeated surged back, ten times stronger, a hundred times stronger, swallowing him utterly. Without his contract, he was lost. No provisions had been made for what would happen to him—he had never been given orders to cover this situation—and without his contract, he could not even seek them out. He could not take another master without his contract.
The blank wall of terror stretched across his mind, stopping thought. His breath came short; iron bands seemed to be compressing his chest, choking him. He could do nothing but crouch there, shivering in the dust, trying to get his mind around the idea that he had lost his contract. He knelt there, while buzzards gyred in the sky above him and the dry wind blew aimlessly across the barren earth. Lost and gone forever, his mind hellishly repeated, a line from a meaningless prewar song that came surging into his consciousness. Lost and gone forever….
He closed his eyes, pressing one fist to his forehead. Help me…Mistress…help me….
He did not know how long he huddled there, lost in the fear, before the vague form of an idea came to him. If he had lost his contract…then perhaps he should go find it again.
Charon clutched at the idea as if it were a lifeline. It would mean storming the fortified Enclave encampment of the Red Racer tricycle factory, dealing with scores of heavily-armed Enclave soldiers—but Charon was not bothered about the details; his need was too great for that. He could not continue his life without his contract. Either he would retrieve it or he would die trying, it was that simple.
He rose to his feet, and turned to put the sun behind him, shielding his eyes. He had no idea how far he had come from the factory, or how long it would take him to get back there; nor what the Enclave would have done with his former mistress's body. Nevertheless, he had to go back. It was better, by far, than going forward. And he had no other choice.
Charon set off, along the cracked and broken roadway.
Deep inside the bowels of the Red Racer Tricycle Factory, Samantha shifted restlessly from foot to foot.
She was standing on a metal disk, about three feet in diameter. On one side of the disk was a vertical pole perhaps seven feet tall, which supported another disk of the same size above her head. The air between the outer edges of the two circles cracked with white energy, forming a cylindrical holding field that kept her imprisoned. She had tried brushing the field with the tip of one finger experimentally, and had jerked her hand away, swearing; she had received a nasty jolt, like the worst static electricity shock ever. Even now, hours later, the end of her finger still tingled.
Her armor was gone; they had taken it from her with all the rest of her possessions, and she stood imprisoned in this cell in nothing more than tank top and shorts. Underneath the tank top, her chest was bandaged and tender, the muscles sore and stiff. She had seen the green blasts of plasma fire coming towards her, had felt the crackling energy rocket through her system, heard the breath whoosh out of her lungs, and had thought she was done for. She'd even had time to think, So this is how it ends: the death of the Last, Best Hope for Humanity—I wonder how Three Dog will report this? before the blackness closed in.
So imagine my surprise to find myself waking up a few hours later in an Enclave medical bay, she thought sourly, and contemplated brushing the field with her fingertip again.
"He wants you alive," one of the Enclave doctors had told her, bending over her with a face that displayed neither concern nor compassion, but a sort of dreadful professional detachment. "That's why the plasma rifles were set on sub-lethal."
Samantha had not known plasma rifles even could be set to sub-lethal. "Who wants me alive?" she asked, and gasped as the doctor inserted an IV needle into her vein.
"Colonel Autumn." The doctor had said no more, no matter how Samantha tried to cajole and persuade her. Samantha grimaced in anger at the memory and shoved her hand at the containment field again, then snatched it back with a muttered curse; this time the jolt had sent sparkly tingles of pain all the way up her arm to the shoulder, and the sore place in her chest flared. Touching that again would probably be a Bad Idea.
After the doctor had finished patching her up, Samantha had been taken in hand by two hulking Enclave soldiers in that bat-like powered armor of theirs and marched here. She had not tried to fight; there was no way she could win against soldiers in powered armor, and very many ways indeed that she could lose. They had taken her here and dumped her into this restraining field, and then simply left, locking the door to the room behind them. She'd been left here for she couldn't even tell how many hours; they'd taken her Pip-Boy away. Left here all alone, with nothing to do….except chew on the fact that Colonel Autumn apparently had plans for her.
Great. And I just bet I know what they are, too. She'd been standing right outside the reaction chamber as her father had sacrificed his life to avoid handing over control of Project Purity to the man who now held her captive. She'd seen the whole thing, watched her father's agonizing death of massive radiation overdose. If he thinks I will have anything to do with helping him achieve whatever the Enclave's twisted goals are, he's got another think coming. She huddled on the cold disk, feeling the treaded metal of the floor press into her bare feet, and set her jaw. I'll never help him. Samantha was wise enough to recognize the bravado in that thought.
To distract herself, she tried looking around the room. Not much luck there, however; other than her holding capsule, the room was completely bare. No furniture, not even a desk or a locker. That, of course, was only important insofar as it meant her gear was not in her cell with her—lessening her chances of escape. She wondered where all her stuff was, and if she would ever see it again. Then she wondered if anyone would ever see her again. Then she shut down that line of thought entirely. Another Bad Idea….
She straightened when she heard the handle turn on the door to the room. Here they come. Quickly she pushed herself to her feet, turning to face the entrance. Her heart began to beat faster with anticipation, and she swallowed uneasily. The door opened. Someone was stepping through it. That someone….
Charon jerked in shock and turned toward her. "Mistress?"
Ghouls were hard to read, and Charon had certainly never been demonstrative, yet right now, she saw surprise in his features. In fact, he looked completely dumbfounded. Have to admit, I can't really blame him. Standing in the restraining cell, heavily bandaged, without her armor, she knew she must look a sight.
"I told you to flee!" Samantha said accusingly. "What are you doing back here?"
"You did not tell me to flee. You told me to save myself. I did so," he explained, still standing in the doorway for any passerby to see. He must be really rattled, Samantha thought; normally Charon wouldn't make a mistake like that.
"Well, get in here and close the door quick, before some Enclave soldiers come by. Did…." She hesitated. "Did you come back to rescue me?"
"No." Back on firmer ground, Charon did as she had ordered. "Rescuing you was not your command to me. In addition, I…I saw you take two plasma bursts to the chest." He was examining her closely. Samantha grimaced.
"The plasma rifles weren't set to 'lethal,' it turns out; they took me to one of their doctors, and she patched me up. The Enclave apparently wants me alive. Come on, get me out of here."
As if he were in a dream, Charon moved to her restraining chamber and touched the controls; the field crackled out of existence. Shivering, Samantha stepped down from the metal disk, wincing as her bare feet made contact with the filthy floor. What's shaken his tree? "Let's go. I don't want to still be here when Colonel Autumn gets around to looking for me."
"As you say." Yet Charon still hesitated. He looks as if I'm some strange, dangerous creature he's never even heard of before… "Mistress….do you have my contract?"
What? She held out her hands, gesturing toward her armorless self. "Do I look like I have your contract?" she asked him. "They took everything away from me when I was captured. Which means we have to go find my stuff before we get out of here, because I'm not going to hike across the Capital Wasteland unarmed and unarmored. Come on. We need to get moving."
"You do not have my contract?"
"I already told you I didn't. Now come on. Did you bring a weapon for me, or am I going to have to equip myself off a downed soldier?"
"You…lost…my contract," Charon repeated slowly, as if he were having trouble grasping the concept. Samantha met his gaze, feeling her own irritation rise inside her
"As I told you twice before, yes," she snapped. "Now, here I am, unarmed and unarmored, alone with an entire base of Enclave soldiers between me and the way out, and all you can think of to talk about is whether or not I have your contract? Come on. We need to get task-oriented in a hurry." She shouldered past him and headed toward the door.
"You lost my contract?!"
Charon did not shout. Samantha had never heard him shout in their entire time together. Nor did he shout then—but if he had, she could not imagine it would sound much different. Echoes rang off the concrete walls and floor. She whirled to face him, her heart pounding, shocked, not just at the loudness of his voice, but at the fact that he was showing this much emotion. Her eyes flew to his face.
"Charon, it's not my fault— I didn't mean to—" she heard herself stammering.
"How could you lose my contract?!"
He was advancing on her now, his hands clenched into fists. Samantha immediately started backing away, a cold chill racing down her spine. The ghost of Ahzrukhal loomed in her mind. Ever since I bought his contract, some part of me always wondered— There was no way she could fight him, unarmed, unarmored, and wounded as she was. Some part of her mind was still struggling to come to grips with the fact that she was backing up from Charon of all people.
"Charon, keep your voice down, for God's sake! The Enclave might hear!" If they didn't already know somehow that her containment cell had been shut down. Thoughts rushed through her mind: It is not a good time for this sort of argument. "I'm sorry," she said rapidly. "I'm sorry. I didn't do it on purpose. The Enclave—"
"You're sorry?" Charon repeated the word incredulously, as if it had no meaning. "How could you do this to me, Samantha?"
She frowned. "Wait—'Samantha?'"
"You no longer hold my contract," Charon snarled. "You are not my mistress anymore. I have neither master or mistress now." He loomed over her, and Samantha shrank back, feeling her eyes widen. "How—If you had only—Samantha, how could you? How—" He looked as if he wanted to strike her. His hands snapped open and closed at his sides. With a visible effort he controlled himself, turned away from her and flung himself down against a wall, sliding down to rest with his arms on his knees.
Samantha studied the slump of his shoulders. I was wrong. He is not angry. He is…afraid? Somehow the idea of Charon being afraid was even more disturbing than that of him being angry. Charon had faced down raging yao guai, super-mutants armed with missile launchers, Talon and the Enclave, and she had never seen him show the slightest bit of fear. But he is afraid now…
Greatly daring, she went to crouch next to him. "But…but that's not true, Charon, is it? I mean—just because I don't know where your contract is right now…The terms—"
"The terms do not specify you by name, or anyone," he cut her off. "My services are not offered to any individual, but to the holder of the contract. That is the exact terminology. If no one holds my contract, then I have no master. When you failed in possession, then I became intestate," he explained brittlely. "My contract is unclaimed property until and unless someone picks it up. I cannot even seek a new master without it—certainly cannot accept one. You lost me," he ground out, and pressed one hand to his forehead, closing his eyes. Samantha had never seen him look so utterly defeated.
Samantha leaned back against the wall next to him and exhaled slowly, suddenly blindsided by a sick wave of guilt. She had never understood just how important Charon's contract was to him until this moment, when she watched him completely undone by its loss. "Charon, I'm sorry," she said again. "I'm so, so sorry—"
"Sorry," he spat bitterly. "What does that matter now?" His voice grated, as rough as two stones scraping.
"Maybe…maybe we can find it again," she ventured, casting about for some way to make it better.
"How?" he snarled, and lowered his forehead to rest on his arms.
"Well, by looking."
"Where would we even begin to look for it?" His stringy, lank hair that perhaps had once been black, fell over his face, obscuring whatever expression his rotted features held. One fist clenched.
"Well, we could start by looking for my gear," Samantha cajoled him. "If we can find that, I'm sure the contract will be in there too."
"And just where would that be?" The biting sarcasm of his words was muffled against his arms.
"Well, how about somewhere else in the factory, for a start?" she asked him. "Come on, Charon. The faster we start looking, the faster we'll be able to find your contract."
The ghoul glanced up at her with one faded eye. Slowly he let her persuade him to uncurl.
"If we don't find it…." he began. Samantha wondered whether that was a threat, and shivered. Ahzrukhal's fate rose again in her mind. She forced an insincere grin.
"I'm sure we will," she replied. "But we have to start looking first. Now did you bring a weapon for me?"
She got him to hand over a silenced 10-mm pistol—though she grimaced in disgust; while better than nothing, this would be almost useless against armored Enclave soldiers—and then went to the door. "Come on," she told him, opening it a crack and peering out. "The coast is clear. Let's get going."