An Obol For Charon


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Scene Title An Obol For Charon
Synopsis You must pay the boatman to cross the River Styx.
Date February 27, 2020

The sky is gray, swirling with clouds. A drizzling rain falls.

The soft wool of a gray, cable-knit sweater is comforting against freezing cold skin. Winding up naked in the ocean in the tail end of February means it’s easier to shake off hypothermia. Thick socks help, too. So do fingerless gloves and a dry pair of trousers. It is all these things and none that Silas McKenzie is thankful for, even if he feels as though he’s living in a nightmare from which there is no waking.

A two-person rowboat affords no privacy out on the open water off the coast of Virginia. Here, where he was marooned on the edge of time, fished out of the sea by a mad prophet. Else Kjelstrom is nothing if not punctual, and there must be small miracles yet for her to arrive so timely, with a backpack full of clothes from Silas’ own closet. He knows these clothes, he left them behind with this world with barely a second thought.

There is no mistake on where he is, now. Not with Else’s humming of La Mer at his back, not with the storm-wracked skies above, and the constant churn of surf as far as the eye can see. He sits with his back to her in that boat, unable to process an alternative other than the worst possible outcomes.

Either he is back in his native world, or he’s dead, this is the River Styx, and Else the ferryman.

It’s hard to say which alternative is worse.

Somewhere off the Virginia Coast

February 27th
8:44 am

Flood Timeline

La mer,” Else continues to sing, lounging in the back half of the rowboat, her hangs down at the water level, fingertips touching the gently churning surg. “Les a bercés.” Her voice carries out over the waves, blind eyes focused up to the gray skies overhead.

For a time, Silas sits there, staring at the horizon, at the sky, at the sea, as if answers are to be found there. As if he might see Luther, or Kimbo, or Kaylee, or Eve, standing on the deck of his boat, waving. Letting him know that all is well.

He doesn't, of course. He doesn't see any of them, any more than he really sees sky or sea or horizon, lost in the gray distance; any more than he sees anything save the sense of loss that seems to have all but gutted him.

Else's singing, though… that gets through to him, after a bit. It is a small comfort… but that and the old, well-worn clothes he's wearing are the only comforts he's got at the moment.

Well. That and not drowning. That's a bigger one.

Can't just stare into space forever. Time to face the music. Silas sighs; as much as he doesn't want to turn around — to face the situation he's found himself in — sitting here and staring into the void isn't going to do anyone any good, not even him.

So he turns, and studies Else as she sings. He waits for a gap in her song, and when he finds one, he speaks.

"Thanks," he says. "For saving me."

Else grows silent but doesn’t otherwise seem to acknowledge Silas, like a coin-operated fortune teller who just ran out the end of her script. A moment later she blinks away the blindness in her eyes and sits up, flicking seawater at Silas.

“I didn’t.” Else says with an incline of her head to the side, one brow raised. It’s only then that Silas hears the birds. At first a few seagulls, then terns, and herons. Seabirds and coastal birds calling out like an aviary at a zoo. Behind the rowboat, in the fog blanketing the ocean, a dark shape starts to come into view. A ship, an enormous ship, surrounded by a crowing flock of birds.

He’d heard stories about a ghost ship in the Atlantic, an old Navy hospital ship rescuing sinking ships and saving their crew. But as the rusted hull of a once pristine, white ship adorned with a red cross comes into view… the ghost ship leaps out of fiction and into reality.

Silas frowns at Else's reaction. There are a few different ways to parse that, and… not all of them are exactly reassuring.

I didn't [save you] is one of them. I didn't [save you] is another. (I didn't [save you] is also a possible interpretation, though that one's… a little weird. It's while he's mulling this over that he notices the sound of the birds, and he's at such a loss at the moment that it takes him a moment to realize: The only time you hear birds at sea is when there's a place for them to nest.

For a split second, his heart leaps in his chest. There shouldn't be any land out here, even in the non-Flooded world; if there is, then… maybe he'd been wrong. Maybe this isn't… what he'd thought it was. Maybe he'd just been teleported, somehow, and he's just in a different place

Then he sees the shadow in the mist. His eyes widen. "Oh," he says aloud, in dull surprise — the astonishment he feels is too much for any sort of disappointment to register.

Option 1, then. Seems the most likely pick. "Then thanks for grabbing me some clothes," he says distantly, eyes still riveted to the enormous ship.

“I wrote a song about a naked man falling out of the sky,” Else says as she lounges back in the rowboat, letting her fingers track through the water again. “A man needs pants, or everything goes this way and,” she flicks some water at Silas, “that.

The massive hospital ship drifts by the tiny rowboat, dwarfing the smaller vessel and putting into stark contrast the size and scale of the two. There’s no engine sounds from the hospital ship, just the sound of it moving through the water, the cry of the birds, and the creak and groan of its hull. The deck of the ship is obscured by the mist, as is the silhouette of a figure leaning over the side.

When Silas sees a rope come spooling out of the mists to land in the water near his rowboat, the context is clear enough. It’s a lifeline.

That is actually enough to draw Silas's eyes back to Else, incredulous; I wrote a song about a naked man falling out of the sky is surreal enough to be mind-boggling, even after the morning Silas has had.

I kinda want to hear that song, is the first thing he thinks. Do you really , though? follows fast on that thought's heels. Better yet. Do you want anybody else to hear that song? Then, with horror: Oh my god. If Mad Eve found out about it, she'd sing it for months.

That, combined with Else flicking him with seawater (again), is enough to send him into a wheezing bout of laughter.

"That it does," he manages. He wheezes with laughter — more than a touch hysteric — before he manages to get it under control. The seawater she's flicking at him helps. "That it does," he agrees, more soberly. He wonders, idly, if she's baptizing him; that'd be fitting in a way, wouldn't it. As far as this world is concerned, his life had ended when he'd leapt through that portal. Now that he's back, you could almost say he'd been born again… and what better 'baptism', in this drowned world, than by salt water?

The sound of the rope slapping the water draws Silas's attention back — the ship has drawn alongside them now, and the sheer scale of it strikes him anew. "Lifeline," he says, for Else's benefit. Seems the rumors of the hospital ship are true, then; with luck, they'll be able to get him to the Pelago, or at least close.

He grabs the line, braces… then pauses, looking over to Else. "Coming with?" He's not sure of… well, much of anything, to be brutally honest, but in particular he's not sure of Else's circumstances. She hadn't rowed here from the Pelago — at least, he hopes not — but he isn't sure if she has a ride coming back for her or not. Or if this is her ride, for that matter.

Else upturns dark eyes to the mist-shrouded deck of the ship. There isn’t much time for her to make a decision, feeling the tug of the lifeline in Silas’ hands pulling the rowboat along. So she sits forward, smooths down the front of her sweater, and walks over to his side to hook an arm around his waist.

“I think we have to climb,” is Else’s explanation as dark brown eyes move from Silas’, following the line of the rope up to the deck of the ship some fifteen feet overhead.

This feels uncomfortably familiar.

Ugh. Hey, we heard you like deja vu, so we put some deja vu into your deja vu so you can cry while you cry! an infuriatingly chipper voice snickers at the back of Silas's mind. He grimaces, pushing that thought away; there's not a lot of time here to get lost in thought. "Alright, then," he says. Been awhile since he climbed a rope; luckily, it's one of those things that you don't forget.

Silas crouches a bit lower, tightening his grip on the rope. "Grab on."

Up, up, up,” Else says in a sing-song voice, throwing her arms around Silas’ neck as she becomes a makeshift backpack. She can feel Silas sigh in response as he takes the rope in hand, swings off the rowboat, and plants his feet on the side of the hull. The dull ache in Silas’ shoulders and elbows is new, the ache in his hips and back as he starts to ascend the side of the ship. His shoes slip from the water on the treads, from the grime on the side of the hull.

Else rests her chin on Silas’ shoulder, offering an ever-helpful, “Don’t fall,” into one ear. He’s almost fifty now, things like this were easier when he was younger. He can feel a tightness in his knuckles, a dull pain that radiates up his finger bones to his wrists. Each step is a new discovery of how he’s gotten older, and as the rowboat drifts away below, he knows the alternative is to die in a watery grave.

So Silas climbs.

By the time his hands come over the railing of the ship, one he discovers is crusted in bird shit, there is a dull ache going down his entire spine and a stiff tension in his knee and hip joints. His arms are screaming, forearms aching from the constant grip. Else climbs off of Silas’ back, stepping down comfortably to the deck of the ship, spattered with bird droppings, and turns to look back at him.

Helpfully, she offers out a hand and pulls Silas the rest of the way over the railing. The rope he’d been climbing is tethered to the railing, tied in a sailor’s knot. There’s birds everywhere on the ship. Gulls, crow, terns, pelicans, all cawing and shrieking like some sort of floating aviary. From the sounds of it the ship’s engines aren’t running. It doesn’t look like anyone’s been here, other than the birds, in a long time.

But then, who threw down the rope?

It's all harder than Silas remembers. He used to be able to do this, off and on, for hours. Shit. He drags himself up another step.

Maybe Eve had been right. Maybe he is Old Guy now. Fuck. He drags himself up another step.

Thankfully Else is light. Goddammit. He drags himself up another step. Heart's beating hard, but strong; at least there's that. Probably all the walking; sadly, walking is much harder when the surface is vertical. He drags himself up another step, and now he's almost there; Else hops off his back, safely aboard, and then extends a hand to help him over the railing… and he's aboard. He nods thankfully, taking a moment to catch his breath… and to take stock of his surroundings.

There are… a lot of birds. Also a lot of birdshit. He grimaces and wipes his hands on his pants — best he can do at the moment — and looks around. There is a lot of birdshit here; it's all over the deck. No one's swabbed in a long time…

His frown deepens; there's no engine noise, either. He'd assumed, before, that they'd cut engines to make it easier to approach and throw down the line… but now, seeing the state of the deck, he's starting to wonder. Starting to feel a little uneasy. Hadn't someone thrown down the rope, though? He's pretty sure he hadn't hallucinated that… had he?

No. No, of course not. He's seen better days, but he's pretty sure he hadn't hallucinated that. "Hello the ship! Anyone about?" he calls. "Thanks for the line…" he adds.

Else listens too, as if she doesn’t know the answer to Silas’ question. As she does, she fishes around in the pockets of her white, linen pants and steps into silhouette behind Silas, then peers up over one of his shoulders, then the other.

“Here,” Else says, reaching around him with one lanky arm, pressing something cold and metal into his palm. “For the boatman.

When Silas turns his palm around, Else has given him two quarters.

Silas stares blankly at his palm. Else has just given him fifty cents. It takes him a moment to make the connection; he doesn't exactly look happy when he does. "Thanks," he says weakly. I hate it, he thinks, but does not say.

Hating it doesn't change it, though. Swallowing, Silas closes his hand around the coins and looks up. His journey's not over yet; he has to make it to port. To the Pelago… he thinks. Assuming it still stands…

It's that thought that puts some steel into him, straightening his spine. He can be shell-shocked later. Right now, he's got somewhere to go… and the first step to that is finding out who else is on this boat. Time to take a look around. The superstructure lies ahead; that, it seems to Silas, would be a good place to start.

The aftcastle of the hospital ship has seen better days. The exhaust tower that would vent gasses from the engine has collapsed entirely. It lays diagonal across the port side of the ship, twisted metal and rusted wreckage tangled up inside. Silas can see the remains of an old medical rescue helicopter blackened by fires from long ago mixed up in the wreckage. The building adjacent to the tower is likewise hollowed out by a fire.

As Silas passes by the doors, he can see burned furniture; tables, chairs, radio equipment, engineering equipment. There’s no bones, no signs of the dead, but the implication of violence that once ravaged the ship is present in tarnished shell casings that rattle around his feet. The birds are even more ominous, perched on high railings and bits of wreckage, they stare unblinkingly, following Silas wherever he goes with beady, black eyes.

A set of rusted stairs leads Silas up from the burned wreckage of the aftcastle, between the flame-scorched walls of one building and the rust-streaked walls of an observation tower. The stairs end at the midship, where two rows of lifeboats covered in faded and weatherbeaten tarps are suspended. Only four rescue boats remain, none of them looking motorized. There’s rusted shipping containers, the collapsed frames of emergency tents, and toppled tables scattered across the midship between the twin rows of rafts.

Else follows behind Silas like a phantom, hands clasped behind her back as he makes his way along the midship toward a taller tier up ahead. Another set of stairs takes Silas up, following the port side of the ship to a helipad, littered with birdshit and shell casings. Suddenly the crashed helicopter makes more sense.

Up ahead at the ship’s forecastle, Silas can see the flickering flame of lantern light inside windows that no longer have glass, though which emanates what sounds like… music.

It's a long, long walk across the deck of the ship; this vessel dwarfs any boat he's ever been on, and there's a lot of real estate to cover.

The collapsed ruin of what looks to be an exhaust tower is enough to poke a pretty big hole in his theory that the engines had been shut down temporarily; it might be possible to run the engines with a collapsed exhaust tower, but it's pretty damn unlikely that it would be an enjoyable existence for anyone onboard.

So how had she gotten here?

Silas doesn't have an answer. He thinks about asking Else… but she doesn't seem particularly inclined to talk at the moment, and for once, he isn't either. All of these birds lurking about… makes me feel like I'm in a damn Hitchcock movie… he thinks, but does not dare say. No more tempting fate today, thanks.

The sense of unease he's feeling gets stronger the further he goes. Between the crashed helicopter, the tarnished shell casings laying around everywhere, and the profusion of birds about, watching him like soldiers in an occupying army… he's starting to have a suspicion about what might be at play here.

He keeps walking. Past the rubble, past the soot covered wreckage, past the twisted ruins and broken detritus. Welcome home, he thinks to himself grimly. Welcome home.

He only comes to a stop when the forecastle comes into sight; the pallid light of a flickering lantern flame visible even in the distance, the ghostly strains of music barely audible in the distance. The windows, he sees, have no glass… no surprise there. Glass would keep out the birds…

Silas squares his shoulders and walks on. The boatman awaits.

The cry of the birds only grows louder as Silas approaches the shadowed enclosure. At some point Else stopped following him, he only notices when he looks back to check on her and she’s ten paces behind his heels.

Vagrant!” A weathered voice calls out from the direction Silas isn’t looking, and when he snaps his attention back to the forecastle he can see the silhouette of a person standing in the doorway, backlit by the lanterns.



Are you lost?

Whispers assail Silas’ mind, a haunting old woman’s voice intruding into his thoughts as if it were his own internal monologue. Birds settle on the ship’s railing, others come to gather in parliament in front of the forecastle entrance. There is a dread that settles in over Silas, confronted by a legend of the open seas. A woman who holds life and death in her hands.

Out from the forecastle emerges a woman, old and wiry with sharp features hardened by the sea. Her hair is a wild mane of gray, not unlike Mad Eve but lacking the mischievous twinkle in her eye. Her clothes are that of a sailor’s; a handspun wool sweater, sturdy pants and tall boots, a long peacoat of navy blue with missing buttons.


Natalie Gray, the sea witch.

Prophet!” Natalie cries. “What have you brought to my doorstep now?”

Well, shit. Silas's first impulse is to reach for his flask… except he doesn't have it anymore, because it, like every single other thing he'd owned, is still on the other side of the universe divide, and therefore lost to him. Funny, the way grief hits; the way it can latch onto even the smallest things and turn them into blades to stab you in the heart anew.

But he's not too caught up — in grief or in dread, either one — to notice the degree of familiarity implied in the sea witch's words. Nor to note what sounds rather like the whisper of someone else poking at his mind — the time he'd spent in close quarters with "Amelie" had given him a bit of practice on that front.

So he squares his shoulders, lets his hands fall to his side, and takes a breath. Is this a sticky situation? Yes… but he's not dead yet, and if there is one thing he can do to increase his chances of staying not dead, it's keeping his head. He considers letting Else answer the question… but the fact that Else is about as close to the next postal code as she can get suggests that the floor is his.

"A traveler, ma'am," he says. "A weary wanderer, lost at sea and far from home."

The birds continue to caw, angrily, wings unfurled in threat. Natalie’s focus slips past Silas, to Else, who slinks around Silas and gives a pointed look down to the hand she’d tucked those quarters into. Dark eyes flicking back up to him with a pump of her brows. She’s quick to turn and face Natalie, though, bowing in greeting.

“He isn’t wounded,” Else says as if in apology. “I know it’s not— ”

Living have no place here.” Natalie says with a twitch of one brow, looking past Else to Silas.

“Respectfully,” Else says, only now rising from the bow. “His situation’s unique. He was hoping…” and Else starts to speak for Silas, “…you could lend ‘em one of your life boats. One of the ones what have a motor.”

Natalie’s eyes narrow, and once more Else draws her attention away from Silas. The old woman approaches the seer, looking her up and down. “I should feed you to the gulls,” she harshly whispers beside Else’s face, lingering on that threat before relaxing and walking past her. “But I owe you for leading the Sentinel around my ship.”

Old Natalie Gray approaches Silas, looking him up and down inquisitively. A black cormorant comes to perch on her shoulder, ducking its head down and upturning pale blue eyes to Silas. The bird shrieks at him, and Natalie briefly looks at it like she understood.

Explain.” Is what Natalie chooses to say to Silas.

Silas catches Else's gaze and gives the tiniest dip of his head. He hasn't forgotten her gift, nor her words. But for all things there is a time, and right now… he's been asked to explain. "A year and some change ago," he begins, "some folks showed up at the Archipelago of Manhattan. They were looking for passage to the Commonwealth, looking for a woman named Michelle Cardinal; they claimed that she was their passage home. At the time, I was serving as chief engineer on the Forthright; Mad Eve believed it was imperative that they get where they were going, and set out to get them there."

"They succeeded. They found the Commonwealth, and they met Michelle Cardinal, and… there was some kind of machine she was building. To open the way to another — " and here he hesitates, wondering if this might not be too much, but he's already this far in " — to another timeline. The place they'd come from. I helped them, and found that the only way out was through… so I went with them, and until today I've been dead, as far as this world was concerned. As far as my crew was concerned." He wonders if they're alive. He wonders if the Pelago still stands.

"Today… I ventured out on a voyage off the coast of Virginia, and the next thing I know I'm thrown into the ocean… except apparently I got thrown a hell of a lot further than that. Else fished me out… but the only things I've got to my name right now are the clothes on my back and…" he raises his hand slowly, turning his wrist up and uncurling his fingers, revealing the coins now resting on his palm. "…fifty cents."

He hesitates for a moment, then shrugs awkwardly. "I… was hoping that you might grant passage."

Natalie looks down at the coins, one brow lifting slowly. She then flicks her focus up to Else over Silas’ shoulder, then back to him with a narrowing of one eye. “Passage?” She asks, hesitating before showing any reaction, then barks out a laugh and throws one hand into the air.

Else relaxes when Natalie laughs, sidling up next to Silas and watching the birds all take flight at once, scattering back to roosts in the creaking heights of the derelict ship. “Come,” Natalie says with a beckoning gesture over her shoulder, walking back toward the lamp-lit darkness. “I’ll show you the way home.”

Silas lets out a slow breath, lips creasing into a tight smile. The way home… That implies the Pelago is still standing, which is enough to cause a faint flicker of hope in his chest.

It also strongly suggests that being pecked to death and eaten by seagulls — not necessarily in that order — has been moved off the table, which is an undeniable source of relief, as well. "That would be greatly appreciated, ma'am," Silas says, closing his hand around the coins and moving to follow.

“Would it?” Natalie says with a sarcastic laugh, stepping through the threshold of the forecastly. At first it’s hard for Silas to see the interior, but as his eyes adjust to the dim lighting he sees what remains of the ship’s helm. A gunfight broke out here some time in the past, shell castings rest under chairs, in the seams where floor meets wall, while others roll and rattle with the pitch and yaw of the adrift vessel.

The ship’s central console is perforated by bullets, the only light comes from oil lanterns hanging from hooks in the ceiling. There is a folding table set up by one of the long destroyed windows, a pair of teacups and saucers, a wood cutting board with fish bones on it and a fillet knife.

Natalie pulls aside a makeshift curtain made out of an old, dingy bedsheet hooked on pipes that once were connected to a fire suppression system Silas can’t imagine still works. But before he can see what she reveals, Natalie turns and steps in close and holds out her hand. Palm up.

Time to pay the boatman.

"Yes," Silas answers, simply and without hesitation. For all that Else managed to find an outfit that looks like it came right out of his closet, it's not quite the same as actually seeing the Pelago. If the place is wrecked, he wants to know. And if his friends, his old crew, Aces died in the Sentinel attack… he needs to know. More and more, he feels he's in freefall… and he won't be able to pick himself up, to move forward, until he hits the ground. Until he finds out just how much has been lost.

And… the outstretched hand. Time to pay up. He places the coins on her extended palm without hesitation; it feels surreal, but what's one mote surreal thing on a day like this?

Nathalie curls her fingers around the coins, then steps aside with a raise of her salt-and-pepper brows to reveal…

…a radio.

“You’re welcome to try as long as you like,” the old woman says with a slow rise of her shoulders. “This ship hasn’t run since the end of the world. The the radio,” she runs a hand along the battered old case, then touches the metal-plated microphone. “Generator still works. More than enough gasoline on this ship to fuel it.”

The old woman steps away from the lantern-lit radio, walking over to that table set for two. “Its range is 18 miles. We drift with the gulf stream, clockwise. In about seventy days we’ll be outside of radio range with the coast, on our way east.”

Slowly, Natalie settles into her chair, leveling pale blue eyes at Silas. “You miss your window, we’ll drift back around to this side of the Atlantic in… four years or so.”

Silas frowns, squinting as he visualizes. A ship this size must have correspondingly enormous engines, and therefore correspondingly enormous gas tanks. There's probably enough gas in those tanks, assuming they were topped off, to run a small personal generator for, oh…

A while. A long while. The Stormfront will probably have calmed down by the time the gas starts running low. That shouldn't be a problem.

But speaking of the Stormfront… he'd probably better hope for pickup sooner rather than later, because being able to get someone on the radio doesn't mean anyone can actually get to him if the currents drag this ship off into the really nasty waters.

But. If he does miss his window… could the engines on this ship be fixed? He thinks again about the size of the engines on this thing. Thinks about them… sitting. For ten years. With no maintenance. Maybe he could get them working at some point before he died, sure, if he was lucky. Or maybe you could not miss that window, hmm?

"Then… I'd best not miss my window," he concludes, nodding. "Understood."

Else finally enters and moves to take a seat beside Natalie, who looks across the table at her with a piercing and frustrated stare. “No more strays,” Natalie says to Else, who folds her hands in her lap and looks at the older woman with her head tilted to the side like a puppy that isn’t sure what it heard.

“Can’t keep that promise,” Else says thoughtfully before turning her dark eyes side-long to Silas, then slowly back to Natalie. “You got any tea for these cups?” She asks, picking one of the chipped teacups up and waggling it around. Natalie lowers her head and pinches the bridge of her nose with forefinger and thumb.

Out across the crashing waves there is nothing but rain and storm clouds, choppy surf, and the life Silas MacKenzie thought he’d left behind. But now, at least, the roar of that surf is joined by something new.

«To any vessels that can hear me…»


«This is the Starling, calling for assistance…»

beyond the sea.

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