[*]

The two of them had made a quick detour to the armory, so Samantha could re-equip herself; she handed Charon's shotgun back to him happily on gaining her beloved plasma rifle again. A Stealth Boy for each of them, drawn from Samantha's stash, provided cover, and the two of them made it out of the factory without further trouble. Once they were clear, Samantha set a rapid pace; she wanted to be halfway back to Megaton by sundown.

Charon followed in his customary place behind her, saying nothing. The two of them had not spoken more than absolutely necessary since leaving the factory earlier; the silence hung heavily between them. Samantha almost preferred it that way. She had no idea what Charon thought of her deception and was half-afraid to find out. The fates of both Ahzrukhal and Autumn lurked in her mind. That's twice now…. She found herself glancing back at him out of the corner of her eye every now and then, wondering; once or twice she met his gaze by accident and they both looked away quickly.

Finally, as the sun began to sink below the horizon, Samantha turned from the road toward the square concrete-block structure of an abandoned power station; it was one of her base camps. "We can't make it much farther before the sun goes down. We'll stop here for the night."

Her voice sounded too loud in her ears. Charon grunted assent. He reached to open the gate to the chain-link fence around the structure, the bandaging on his hands standing out white in the gloom; Samantha saw the way his shoulders tensed and hastily said, "No, don't— I'll get it."

"As you command, Mistress," was his only reply. Samantha quickly pulled the gate open, wondering if she heard a slight emphasis on the word "Mistress" and what it might mean if she had. Dammit, am I ever going to be able to stop wondering now? She opened the door the same way, holding it for her follower to pass through, and then closed it behind her, plunging the interior of the station into shadow. The light of her Pip-Boy 3000 led her to the battery-operated lantern resting on top of the old filing cabinet; she flicked it on. It chased back the dark a little.

Charon had started to move toward the drum in the center of the floor, preparing to kindle the fire as he usually did. Samantha winced. "No—Charon, don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. You just—relax."

"Your standing order is that I start the fire as soon as we make camp," Charon insisted. He reached for a scrap of board from the pile of wood against the wall to lay in the drum, then stiffened as his fingers curled around it. The stick slipped out of his grasp and crashed to the cement floor. His ruined face twitching, Charon bent down to pick it up again.

"No—I mean it. Don't worry about it," Samantha said. Quickly she crossed the room to get the board herself, and her hands closed around it at the same time as Charon's; together they straightened, lifting the board. "I can do it. You just—"

"Starting the fire is your standing order to me," Charon insisted again, attempting to take the board from her grasp. Samantha hung on, pulling it back toward her. "It is part of my normal duties." He had not let the board go, and now he tried to pull it toward him. For some reason Samantha refused to let it go either, and they ended up in a tug of war.

"Charon, I mean it," Samantha repeated. "Don't worry about it. I can do it. It's not that big a deal—" She yanked on it hard, almost pulling it out of her follower's grasp this time. Charon's jaw set, though his eyes stubbornly avoided hers.

"Starting the fire is part of my duties," he said obstinately. "I am fully capable of—"

"I said, don't worry about it tonight," Samantha insisted. "I've started fires before, believe it or not, I know how— " Her follower yanked the board back toward himself, causing her to stumble. They tussled back and forth over the piece of kindling for a few moments until Samantha straightened.

"Charon, drop it!" she snapped.

The ghoul immediately released the board and stepped back. "As you command, Mistress," he said in that gravelly voice of his, turning his face away. Samantha stood there, panting a bit, trying to read the set of his shoulders, feeling faintly ridiculous and ashamed of herself at the same time. Wordlessly, she turned toward the steel drum and began to lay a fire. Charon retreated to the shadows, standing awkwardly by the wall and looking every bit as uncomfortable as she felt. She threaded slices of brahmin on skewers and laid them over the fire, then went to climb out of her powered armor. The sizzle of the cooking meat was the loudest thing in the room. When they were done, she handed one to Charon. He took it gingerly; something in those rheumy eyes made Samantha bite her lip. Preparing dinner was usually his job.

While they were eating—or while she was eating and Charon was picking at his food, as he usually did—she screwed up her courage. "We have to go by Vault 101 tomorrow. We need to pick up Dogmeat." It was not what she had wanted to say, but breaking the silence was hard.

"As you command, Mistress." Charon still did not meet her eyes.

She drew a breath. "And…we have to go by Springvale."

"Mistress?"

"To pick up a safe," she explained around a mouthful of Brahmin meat. "I think I saw one in one of the ruined houses. We'll bring it back home with us and bolt it to the floor. That way…" She paused and drew another breath. "I'll have somewhere safe to leave your contract when we're out."

This was closer, though still not what she wanted to say. Charon's eyes flickered toward her, then dropped to the floor again. "As you say, Mistress." The cinderblock wall behind him was more expressive than he was, she thought in frustration.

Swallowing, she forged ahead. "We need…ah, we need to make some contingency plans," she managed. The words were so heavy; speaking was almost a physical effort. Part of her expected Charon to say, Well it's a little late now. "In case something … ah, happens to me. I don't want…" She left the sentence to trail off. "I've been thinking… How—uh, how would you feel about Lucas Simms taking your contract? You know, if— Would that be all right with you?"

"If it is what my mistress commands, then I will obey." The white bandages on his hands shone through the gloom. She saw him flex his fingers, slightly.

"I'm not asking if you will obey, Charon," she snapped, her own tension too high to permit such equivocating in her follower. "How will you feel?"

"If he is acceptable to you, Mistress, then he is acceptable to me." The ghoul's flayed features were unreadable. Samantha groaned inwardly. I should have known better. She had had similar conversations with Charon before, and they all ended the same way: the two of them going round and round pointlessly as Samantha pushed him for his view and Charon insisted that his view was whatever hers was. Sometimes she could get an opinion out of him by a direct order, but she was never sure whether his stated opinion was what he truly thought or whether it was what he thought she wanted to hear. She muttered a curse.

"Well, I'm going to approach Simms about your contract unless you object. Do you have any objections, Charon?" She tossed it at him defiantly; it was the same question he always asked her when taking any action on his own initiative.

Charon blinked. "No, Mistress," he said, and flexed his hands again.

"Good. Then it's settled." She picked the last shred of meat off her skewer and flung the stick into the fire angrily. Her irritation was mostly for herself. Charon had never really opened up to her, nor did she expect he ever would; he guarded his inner thoughts and feelings more carefully than anyone she had ever known. As would be expected, she admitted to herself; from what little she knew of Charon's history, she could understand why he would be so wary of showing others his true thoughts. In particular, the one who holds his contract. As they had spent more time together, there were times when Samantha could sense his barriers weakening; but the slightest hint of pressure, and they would slam back into place. And now, when he's already retreated to monosyllables, I go and snap at him. Not helpful. She heaved a sigh, twining her fingers together and regarding her ghoul follower.

"Charon, we—I—uh…" This far out on a limb, might as well jump. "I owe you an apology." Somehow it was easier to say than she had thought it would be.

"As you say, Mistress." The ghoul was studiously avoiding her eyes.

She forged ahead. "What you said to me back in the Enclave encampment—"

Charon's expression closed. "I was wrong to say it, Mistress. I should not have spoken to you in that fashion."

"No." Samantha leaned forward for emphasis. "You were absolutely right, Charon. I should have talked to you about this long ago. As soon as we get back to Megaton where it's safe, we're going to sit down together and we're going to go over exactly what I need to do for you to make sure you're good. I don't want you ever again to find yourself in a situation like what just happened."

She studied him, trying to gauge his reaction, but his face was stone. "As you command, Mistress." Dammit. That makes four "As you command, Mistress"es and two "As you say"s so far. Not good. She ran one hand restlessly through her hair. Her deception of him—and the fate of Ahzrukhal and Autumn—loomed large in her mind.

Just say it. Get it out in the open and it can't hurt you, girl. She knew that was right. But how am I supposed to just ask, "Hey, Charon, are you planning to kill me?" Especially when he sits there across the fire looking like a granite wall and not saying anything but "As you command"?

She drew another breath, trying to steady herself. The thought drifted distantly through her mind that a hypo of Med-X or a puff of Jet would make this whole conversation so much easier, and she slammed the door on it hard. Bracing herself, she dived in.

"Charon, there's something I need to ask you, and this won't be pleasant for either of us." Charon tensed immediately, and Samantha bit her lip. "I could place you under orders to respond, and I may still do so, because it is that important to me. But I'm going to start by simply asking, in hopes that, if nothing else, you have enough respect for me to tell me the truth."

She paused. Charon had grown more agitated as she spoke, almost squirming in place. Just seeing that caused a sinking sensation in the pit of Samantha's stomach. He actually started to interrupt her: "Mistress, I—" before catching himself and falling silent again. Samantha ran her hands through her hair again, trying to think of the best way to phrase it.

"I deceived you into killing Autumn," she said at last. "I said I had your contract when, at that time, I didn't. I need to know: By doing so, have I offended you to the point where, if I transfer your contract to another, you will find it necessary to shoot me as you did Ahzrukhal?"

"What?"

Charon stared at her as if she had just grown another head. He looked as if she had said something in a foreign language and he could not grasp her meaning. He didn't expect me to say that, she thought, and felt somewhat heartened.

"I watched you kill Autumn," Samantha pressed on. "I watched you shoot Ahzrukhal. Autumn I know about, at least. I have no idea how Ahzrukhal offended you or what he did, but I need to know." She called on her own steel now, the same steel that had allowed her to become the Last Best Hope for Humanity; she drew herself up and met Charon's filmy eyes head on, boring into them. "I am asking you directly and I want a direct answer: How close am I to pissing you off to the point where it's not safe for me to transfer your contract?"

She hadn't used the word order but she had come very, very close; Charon's unease grew, as it usually did whenever she caught him on the point of a question about himself. "Mistress, I— You don't understand, " he said at last.

"Then explain it to me."

"Ahzrukhal…." Charon's filmy eyes turned distant. "He was an evil bastard." There was a chilling quality to his rough voice. "The things he would do, or would order me to do…. I had no choice but to obey him as long as he held my contract. But I vowed that I would not let him get away with it." The words ground like stone on stone. "That if I ever had the chance, there would be a reckoning. Shooting him was not full payback for what he had done—not even close—but I could do no more. Mistress, you…." He paused, as if trying to take a grip on himself. When he spoke, his voice throbbed with surprising intensity. "You are nothing like he was. Serving you after serving him…the difference is like…." He trailed off. One white-wrapped hand groped vaguely, then fell back to rest against his knee. "No, Mistress," he said at last, drawing a breath and burying his unwonted emotion with a visible effort. "I bear you no ill will."

"But I lied to you, Charon," Samantha pressed, scarcely daring to believe. "I told you that I had your contract when I didn't and led you to kill the true holder of your contract. Are you sure you're just fine with that?"

"You did, Mistress," Charon admitted, looking troubled. "But you did not do so out of malice. You believed it was the only way." He sounds slightly less convinced, Samantha noted. "And you did it to save my life. If it had not been for you, Autumn would have executed me for…." He trailed off. Can he not bear to name it to himself? she wondered. "If you…if you wish to transfer my contract, have no fear." He swallowed a bit as he said that.

She stared at him for a long moment, trying to gauge his sincerity, then nodded. "Thank you for your honesty, Charon." Samantha paused. "And Charon, I just want you to know: if at some point in the future you should ever see me doing anything like…like Ahzrukhal used to do, I want you to call me on it hard. Okay? I mean it," she said as she saw his dubious expression. "Or, if I give you an order that goes against your conscience. You tell me, you understand? I don't—I see so many of these Wasteland psychos out there, like Jericho, or….. I don't want to end up like them. Help me, Charon. If you think I'm going off the rails, don't keep it to yourself, all right?"

Charon's face had closed again. "It is not my place to disapprove of my mistress." He leaned forward to stir up the fire.

Samantha paused to consider Charon's warped logic. So if he sees me doing something he doesn't like, he'll wait until I transfer his contract and then kill me, rather than simply speak up right then and there? Because it wasn't his place, she mused. Not for the first time, she reflected on the strange effects that Charon's mysterious early training must have had on his mind. "Well, I am your mistress, and I say it is."

"As you command." Charon shifted. After a moment, he ventured, "Mistress…..Have I displeased you in some fashion?"

Now it was Samantha's turn to stare at Charon. "Have you—what?"

"Mistress…if there is something I have done that you do not care for, you have only to tell me and I will correct it."

Samantha frowned. "What are you talking about, Charon? You're doing fine—more than fine. Why would you even ask that?"

Charon did not look relieved. "You—Mistress, you spoke of transferring my contract. I can only conclude that you are dissatisfied with me for some reason, and I—"

"That was just a hypothetical situation. Charon, believe me, I have no intention of transferring your contract any time soon." Samantha bit her lip and considered adding, unless you ask me to. Studying his expression, she decided against it. The idea of having his contract transferred was clearly making him uneasy as it was, and she knew enough to know that just mentioning it would get the two of them going around in circles again. She rubbed at her temples and gave a rueful laugh. "Am I dissatisfied with you? Hell, Charon, you saved my life back there—what could I possibly have to be dissatisfied with you about?"

Charon leaned forward to prod at the fire. Yellow and orange light danced across his reddish features. Staring into the flames, he said slowly, "You saw….Mistress, you saw how I obeyed Colonel Autumn's order to kill you."

"I did," Samantha agreed. "And?"

Nothing more was forthcoming. Charon continued to stare into the flames, seeming as if he wished to lose himself there. The silence crackled with tension; she got the impression that this was a great deal more important to Charon than he dared to say. After a moment, groping for a way to keep the conversation going, Samantha fumbled, "I was surprised, I'll admit. Pleasantly surprised," she added, with a smile. Charon made no answer. "I fully expected you to shoot me without a second thought the moment Autumn gave the order."

"No, Mistress." That was all. Charon stirred the fire again.

Feeling her way, Samantha floundered, "Had you ever done anything like that before?"

The ghoul's jaw worked. "Yes, Mistress. Twice previously."

"Twice—" Samantha began, but her follower interrupted her. Actually she thought he might not even have heard her. His words tumbled out as if he were compelled somehow to speak.

"Twice, each time when the alternative was death. Autumn said he thought there were few of my cohort left. He is wrong. As far as I know, I am the only one, Mistress. Because of what I have done. The second time …I swore I would never do it again, but….Mistress, I had to." Now he met her eyes, almost pleading. "To save your life. Mistress, there was no other way. If there had been any other way I would have taken it, but…."

Samantha stared at him. For him, this is practically babbling. "Charon, wait. Are you –" She paused, trying to figure out what was going on. "Are you expecting me to—to be mad at you?"

"You saw how I obeyed Autumn's order," Charon repeated obstinately.

"Yes, but why should I be mad at you for that? Were your previous masters mad at you?"

"They did not know." At her confused look, he elaborated, "Neither of them survived."

Neither of them survived. Samantha chewed on that for a moment. "Why not?" she asked, then cursed mentally; she could see her follower's visage tighten as he locked himself down.

"If my mistress wishes me to discuss this with her, then I will."

Right. That's Charon-speak for "I refuse to talk about this." She sighed. "Charon, you don't have to apologize to me for what you did. You saved my life," she said, holding his eyes. "It would be pretty ungrateful of me to criticize how you did it."

Her follower stared at the fire some more. "That is not my superiors would have said during indoctrination."

Samantha sat up straight. "Indoctrination?" she repeated.

Charon said nothing. It might have been because he didn't want to answer, but Samantha was not sure he had even heard her. He stared at the flames, lost within his own mind.

"I knew what Autumn's intention was the moment he gave the order to shoot you. I knew it and yet I did not perform it. I did—I chose to do other." He drew a breath, as if contemplating a terrifying abyss. "I….I d-disobeyed." It sounded as if he were forcing himself to say the word. "I disobeyed an order and killed the rightful holder of my contract." He spoke as if the two things were connected. Perhaps, Samantha reflected, in his mind they were. Charon raised his chin. "You should have let Autumn shoot me," he concluded severely.

"Never," Samantha said at once. "Never. Listen—"

"During indoctrination, we were taught that the thing that made us so valuable was our unquestioning obedience." There's that word again, Samantha thought. "The holders of our contracts always knew that we would obey any order given to us, instantly and to the best of our ability. We were living weapons, with no more autonomy than any other weapon. We were completely safe to trust—for as long as our masters held our contracts. Because we could not do other than their bidding. Yet I—I d-disobeyed. I killed my master." He stumbled over the word again. Now his eyes met hers. "That guarantee is broken. If my superiors knew of this, they would have me disposed of as flawed, unworthy. How can you ever trust me again, Samantha?" She didn't think he even realized he'd called her by her name. "How can you ever trust that I won't harm you?"

How can you ever trust yourself, do you mean? Samantha wondered. The quiet, reserved façade Charon usually hid behind was nowhere in evidence, and now that it was gone, she wished for it back again. It was so much easier to deal with a quiet, silent follower than one who presented her with all these complex problems to solve. She groped for something to say. "Look, Charon—do you honestly think I'd trust you less because you disobeyed an order to kill me?"

Charon contemplated that. She could almost see the gears turning in his head. At least, it seemed to have given him pause, and Samantha was pleased—she was actually rather proud of that argument. At last he said, "But what worth do I have now that I have…have disobeyed? What value can I have to anyone?"

"Charon, you don't have worth because you obey. You have worth because you are a human being." Well, a ghoul, anyway, she amended. "You're a person, and all people have intrinsic worth—"

"That is untrue," Charon asserted flatly. Something as cold and obdurate as granite shone behind his filmy eyes. Samantha stopped to consider that herself, thinking of the Raiders, of the Slavers of Paradise Falls, of the Hunters of Men that she had encountered a time or two in the Wasteland. Of Roy Phillips and his gang of ghouls, and what he had pulled at Tenpenny Tower—after I put my credibility on the line trying to help him, no less. Anger still rose in her at the thought. She had returned to deal him justice…but what good did it do, after the fact? Of Autumn himself; her eyes fell on Charon's white-wrapped hands.

"All right, there are some people out there who aren't worth the cost in ammo necessary to put them in the ground," she admitted. "But Charon—you're not one of them. You're not a Wasteland psycho or a Slaver, or anything like that. You are a good person. You have value, Charon." She tried, "I value you. Not because you follow my orders, but because I—I think of you as a friend."

She hesitated a bit over the last part because she didn't know how he would take it. Charon was silent for a long moment, thinking.

"I was not trained to be a 'friend.'" He sounded almost lost.

Samantha smiled. "Well, you're doing a great job so far, so keep it up."

She studied Charon's expression, hoping to see if she had gotten through to him, but could tell nothing. He drew his combat knife, tracing absent designs in the dust covering the cold concrete floor. His eyes never left the flames.

"Mistress," he said after a time, "I … I want to promise you something."

Samantha heard the slight stress on the words want to. "What is it, Charon?" she asked quietly.

"I want to promise you that…" He trailed off for a moment. "That no matter what may happen in the future, I will not hurt you, ever."

Again, there it is: that "want to." Samantha could sense there was something else.

"But?" she prompted him.

Charon dropped his faded, rheumy eyes to his combat knife. He turned it over in his bandaged hands, examining the blade closely. His voice sounded like steel on cement. "But….That promise is one that I do not know if I can make. Life in the Wastelands is uncertain. If…If you should fail in possession again, if a new master should claim my contract—"

"Yes, but this time we're going to take precautions so that can't happen, Charon," she rushed to reassure him. "Remember?"

The ghoul negated that with a sharp gesture. "Life is uncertain," he repeated. "Precautions can fail. If a new master should claim my contract, and he were to order me to….to hurt you, I—" He trailed off. One hand groped uselessly.

"Couldn't you resist him, like you did with Autumn?" Samantha ventured.

Charon slowly shook his head. "You don't know what you are asking." His eyes drifted closed briefly. "It is so…hard…Mistress, I—I do not want to harm you," he finished. "But—my contract holder gives me orders, I do not give them to myself. I—I cannot say—"

Greatly daring, Samantha reached out one hand and laid it on his patchwork arm. He did not pull away.

"Charon," she said, "if you want to make me that promise, then go ahead. I trust you." She was almost surprised to realize that it was true.

The ghoul stared at her. "You…trust…me?"

"I do. Your word is good with me."

He studied her for a long moment. Slowly, an almost imperceptible tension began to drain from him. "As you say." He straightened a bit. "Then I give you my word: come what may, for as long as either of us may live, I will never harm you. You need have no fear of me." Perhaps there was a feather-touch of doubt in his voice, but it was gone by the time the echoes died to stillness in the dust of the power station.

"Thank you, Charon," Samantha said gravely. "I am honored." And she was; she could see in her follower's eyes the seriousness of that vow. "I accept your promise." On impulse, she held her hand out. Looking startled, Charon reached up and took it, somewhat gingerly on account of his bandaged palms. The two of them shook on it across the crackling flames.

"Now turn in and get some sleep," Samantha told him gently as they released each other. "I'll take first watch tonight. Remember, we have a lot to do tomorrow."

"As you command, Mistress," Charon replied. Somehow, the unease between the two of them had fallen away. The ghoul shook out his bedroll and climbed in as Samantha drew her assault rifle, loaded it, and laid it across her knees. Within moments, the sound of his even breathing filled the room. Samantha sat up, calm and watchful, in the dusty two-hundred-year-old silence of the abandoned power station.

Finis.