How the Ocean Came to Burn
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The ship sailed to the edge of the world, and found corpses. They stopped, lowered ladders, sent out a launch. They went to each corpse and slowly, one-by-one, loaded them into the boats.

They hauled them back up and took them on deck. Most of them were bleary, unsure of what was happening. Blankets, hot cocoa and a sympathetic voice were passed around. We're so sorry, the sailors said. You died. You are now the eternal slaves of the Sultan of Sargasso, and it is our job to take you to his empire.

Most were still in shock. They had suffered an icy, cold death, sinking to the bottom of the sea floor or blasted by ancient cannon. The detritus of every shipwrecked soul across the Multiverse eventually made its way to edge of this world, ready for the slaver ships and their army of thousands.

Captain Charon was among the Sultan's most feared and respected mamelukes. He had an eyepatch, a wooden leg and a face of eternal youth. He wore a great coat of furs across his shoulders. A long scimitar was tied to his waist, and his beard was black and ragged.

His voice was always kind and gentle. He came round to each slave on the voyage home, and encouraged them. It's not so bad, he said. I went through the same thing once, and look where I am now! He'd listen to their stories and write them in a book, a long, rambling tome composed over many millennia.

He'd give them advice - how to get onto the good details, how to curry favour. But he was the only slaver in the sea, and so everyone he told would be shoved onto a level playing field. Not everyone could become a captain. There was an eternity of service between his cabin and the Pit.

Once there was a woman who wouldn't stop shaking. "I want to die again", she said. He only smiled, sadly, and told her that she couldn't. There wasn't any death here; only the Sultan.

"Can he kill me?"

"No." He closed his eyes and winced.

The edge of the world was a long, long way from the port of Ollantyre, with its great cliff of carved bloodstone. There were many obstacles across the Sargasso that could sink a foolhardy captain, but Charon was anything but foolhardy. His first mate, Maggie, often thought he was too cautious. "You're too cautious, Charon", she would say.

Charon just shook his head and smiled at her bluntness. She was short, with eyes beaten by this world into daggers. She was more direct and gruff with the slaves, and sometimes Charon wondered if that wasn't a better way.

"I have been sailing these seas for seven millennia, Maggie, and I am not about to engender our master's wrath by being caught in the Whirlpool or seized by the Moon King's navy. If we arrive home in a fortnight rather than a week, then at least we will do so with our cargo intact. Besides, there's no point in getting home sooner. We've got the timings set up just right: we arrive at the edge just as enough souls have emerged for a full load."

Maggie grunted, and took a swig from her hip flask. "We never get any time for shore leave. The crew will get restless."

"Shore leave? On Ollantyre? What are they going to do, spend a fun evening in one of the bureaucratic offices? Anyway, the crew aren't going to get restless. They know that this is the one post where they can be virtually guaranteed of the avoidance of pain. The less time we have a chance for an audience with the Sultan, the better."

Maggie shuddered. She still remembered the last time their master had held court. "Fine. But don't blame me when the crew mutinies."

Charon smiled, and returned to his ledger. "That'll be all, lieutenant."

They came from so many places, so many universes. A thousand different species would wash up on the edges, confused and alone. Adytum, Harkhret, the Elran Islands. Green-skinned monsters from beyond Salome's gate. Denizens of the Library who travelled on the wrong Ways, falling into an unknown ocean. Sooner or later, after the endless purifications of wood and water, the shipwrecked all ended up on Sargasso's shores.

Their death-wounds were often grievous, so the first order of business was a visit to the ship's carpenter. He'd bestow new legs, heads, arms or eyes in a rough-oak veneer. He'd given Charon his new leg, but the captain had never allowed him to replace his eye. The patch was too much a part of him, a reminder that he could only see half of his own life. His Sultan, he stubbornly insisted, was the only one who could know the other half.

The shipwrecked were all placed in cages underneath the deck, as per tradition. Swinging lanterns lit the room, casting new shadows with every wave. They huddled together, whispering about the lives they'd left behind. Charon could almost hear them through his cabin walls, their thin hissing words and attempts at laughter.

Once they had been imprisoned, he'd always come down to introduce himself. The dead waited, staring at the staircase, hearing the light foot alternate with the wooden thud. They recoiled at his appearance, but he spread his arms wide and smiled.

"Hello, hello, my lost and weary souls. I am the Amir Charon, seventh mameluke to the Sultan of Sargasso and slaver of the furthest edge. I am sure you are all tired, hungry and confused. This will be dealt with in time. For now, though, know that you are the personal possessions of the greatest monarch of the multiverse, a man of mercy and justice who protects all his loyal slaves."

He remembered that, once, the slaves had tried to revolt. A mutiny that had almost taken the ship. For many hours the battle raged, until they forced them back down below. The Sultan had them all taken to the Pit, and as far as he knew, they were still there.

"Like the ferryman?"

He blinked, and turned towards the voice. It was a young man, his eyes and face mutilated by some sea creature. Wood had been implanted in its place, blotchy and inconsistent. What remained of him was gaunt and frightened.

"The ferryman?"

"Charon. The Greek myth. The ferryman of the dead, over the river Styx."

He blinked at Charon, confused. Charon stared back.

That night, Charon pored over his ledger. He'd written down everything the boy had said in minute detail, and was reading it again and again. A ferryman, with an oar and a tiny boat.

The universe was one commonly referred to as "Sol". It had a single planet supporting life, which at the peak of its population had only reached 10 billion people. It had been wiped out quickly and easily after some old god arose from a pocket universe in a frenzy of annihilation. Only two slaves before now had come from there. Time worked in different ways here, and it took eons for anyone to arrive at the edge - there were untold trillions still processing through purification.

So why did this universe have a Charon? Not a slaver, but a ferryman. This Hades did not sound like heaven, but it didn't sound like Sargasso either. It was a strange idea to Charon; an afterworld without so much inevitability.

"You're really obsessing over that, huh?"

He hadn't noticed Maggie come in. She was sitting in front of his desk, sporting her characteristic scowl and whittling a wooden spike. Maggie liked to whittle things, strip them down. Remove layer after layer until only the truth was left.

"I've never heard my name from a single slave at any time. Ever. And when a legend about me finally does make its way into the land of the living, well… it's like me. A sailor, plying the waters."

"An oarsman. And a coincidence." Maggie narrowed her eyes. "Don't go getting soft on me, captain. You're a slaver. That's all you can be."

Charon leant back, rubbing his eyes. "I can't remember my life any more. Do you remember yours, Maggie?"

Maggie shook her head. "No." But this was a lie, her only lie, concealing an ache she barely noticed any more. She remembered her island, pink and green, the tribes hunting and dancing on the shore at night. She remembered that night on the fishing boat. Then an eternity later, learning that her entire universe had a name, a station, a fixed point in reality that was nothing compared to the Sultan of Sargasso.

"It doesn't do good thinking about all that, Charon. We are what we are; always have been and, if the Sultan is merciful, all we ever will be. Memories fade and new ones take their place. You can't change that by delving into ancient legends from dead worlds. Let it go."

But Charon couldn't let it go. He lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling and listening to the waves go by. There was no sun in Sargasso, and the water was a deep and deadly brown, so he was used to staring at the same thing, again and again, unvariedly.

But when he closed his eyes he kept seeing this other Charon. He saw the Styx as grey, the banks as a pitch black. The other Charon was thin where he was built, lanky where he was stocky. A frail and waving figure of white.

He was a slaver and a mameluke, and that was all he knew. He could not honestly say that he liked the Sultan, but he was the lord of Sargasso. Nobody had ever articulated an alternative since the mutiny, which was millennia ago and barely remembered. And that wasn't really anything except an action of rage and misery, an incoherent cry, a yell of unformed defiance. But he knew that this was all there was; the Sultan was the world, the maintenance of existence. It was the Sultan who had plucked him from the galleys and made him a mameluke. He was forever grateful. He tried not to think of the dull of the Sultan's eyes, the childish leer of his smile, the mediocrity of him.

He turned over and stared out of the window. The stars glittered, and the moon shone red. The Moon King had his own slaves, his own cruelties, unique but no better than the Sultan's. If you looked closely you could see his galleys, manned by slaves that descended to the sea each night to do battle with Sargasso's ships. All those who died screaming in space made their way to his halls; there was no Pit, but there was a Vortex.

Who had he been in life? Human memories do not last so long, and there were only flashes left. A mother's touch, his first sight of water, the rough scratch of a tunic. It wasn't much. You couldn't build a life on them.

The next night, he sat up with the boy. His name was Will, he was only 19, and he was still a little afraid of the dark. Charon could tell; the slight flinching when the lantern moved, the way he glanced out of the porthole. He would wrap his skinny hands on the bars of the cage and cling tight.

He asked him more about his world. He'd been on a cruise ship, a voyage taken for pleasure, when they hit a rock. His parents had survived, he thought, although he couldn't be certain. He'd fallen and drowned.

"I hope they never go to sea again", he said. Charon had heard similar sentiments expressed many times before, but this time it stung a little more. He kept thinking of dark clouds and a three-headed dog, snarling at the gates.

"What happens to us? Where do the dead go, Charon?"

"They go to the offices of Ollantyre, Sargasso's chief port and the centre of all bureaucracy. From there, you will be sent to one of many places. There's the mines to the north, servants to the Sultan's court, farmhands on the eastern coast. There are galley slaves who man the ships for our nightly battles with the Moon King. And there's the Pit."

"The Pit?"


But how could he describe the Pit?

"It's just another job. Nothing to worry about."

But it wasn't. It was where you were sent when you misbehaved, when you slipped. And when you had millennia to make a mistake, it was impossible to avoid it forever. As to what happened in the Pit - that didn't matter. All that matters was that the cogs beneath the earth kept turning.

The ship swayed. Will seemed a little mollified. Charon could see the gears turning in his mind, working out a way to adjust to his new existence, to avoid despair. Over time, though, despair would become his companion. Eventually, despair would be all that was left. They didn't need his mind.

In general, you didn't talk about the Sultan. It was like mentioning a taboo, a forbidden fact of life everyone knew about but didn't want to mention. You couldn't avoid the knowledge of him, but you repressed it, turning him into an unspoken fact of life that warped your daily actions.

When you have spent seven millennia in one another's company, however, you couldn't escape even the unspoken. Maggie and Charon knew each other's views intimately. Through little signs, tones of voice, occasional comments made in the stress of traversing the Whirlpool - each of them thought the other a heretic, and never spoke of it.

Maggie hated the Sultan. This was clear almost immediately. She loathed him and everything he stood for. She also hated her job, the things they had to do, the slavery, the galleys, but also the Moon King and his own celestial mirror. Charon often wondered why she remained so loyal to him and to their work.

He, on the other hand, was a loyalist. His Sultan had lifted him up and eased his pain, giving him a job which, though dull and wearying, at least allowed him a vaguely human life. He did his work because he believed in the Sultan's empire. Any other thoughts were distractions, late-night musings that should be crushed.

This was why he couldn't understand Maggie's attitude. Why was she questioning his newfound ambivalence? Why was she so concerned about a trivial distraction?

He turned this over in his head while Will talked about his home, on a place called Ireland. He talked about Dublin and green cliffs and the bastard English and his hopes for Sinn Fein in the election. Charon promised to look into their records and find out what had happened to his home. Will seemed grateful.

"Why are you being so kind to me? You're a slaver."

"I don't know."

They sat in silence for a while. The soft sound of the water moved all around them.

"Do you have any more stories?"

Will looked at him, head cocked. "Why do you want them?"

"Because nobody will ever hear them again."

The words tripped out of his mouth without his even meaning to say them, but he couldn't help it. The stories would all die, as the tellers and all they told lost their sense of self, one-by-one. The woven myths and fabric of the waters of the world would all drown, and there would be nothing left of these broken worlds. Except for his ledger.

Will nodded, slowly. Charon's eyes seemed almost pleading. He knew the sort. He'd knocked on their doors often enough, campaigning for justice in the bitter bite of winter. He just needed a push.

"Let me tell you of Prometheus, and how he stole fire from the gods, and gave it to the people of the world."

And Charon understood.

The night watch was up, and Charon had prepared them for the task ahead. The stars glimmered frantic and fast, and the faint cannon of evening's wars stabbed through the night.

Charon tugged his beard. It was almost silent; a few men nodded to each other, confirming their conspiracy. He hoped the others would accept the change immediately, that they would be more loyal to him. He stood upon his deck, staring into the water, ears pricked up for any sounds of conflict or betrayal.

Tonight was the night. Tonight was the night they opened the cages wide -


He turned, and Maggie stood there, holding up her pistol into his face. She was framed by the light of the moon, the glow surrounding and enveloping her. A few soldiers lifted their swords with a cry, but Charon waved them away.

"Maggie. I take it you're not joining us?"

Maggie said nothing, but her grip tightened. Charon lifted his hands in the air, smiling slightly.

"You didn't ask me to."

"With good reason, it seems."

Charon took a step forward. Maggie snarled, thrusting the barrel of the pistol at his chest. He stopped.

"You hate the Sultan. You've always hated him."

"And you've always been a selfish, messianic shit. If it's not the Sultan's propaganda you fall for, it's the ravings of a boy from a dead world. Always another narrative to push you onwards. You never stop to think, Charon, think about who gets hurt. Every time you told those slaves it'd be OK, that they'd get through it - every time I wanted to strangle you."

Her eyes were distracted, tearful. Charon reached behind his back.

"You don't care about anyone. Not really. I want the Sultan gone as much as you do, but there's nothing we can do. This is his world, him and the Moon King. Your men have followed you for seven thousand years, and now you betray them?"

"You don't know what they want."

"I know they don't want the fucking Pit!"

Maggie lifted the pistol up and, hands shaking, fired.

But Charon was prepared. He was an old, old sailor, who had clashed with enough demons and enemies on the waters to know how to defend himself. He whipped out his sword and deflected the bullet, a manoeuvre practised over centuries. Snarling, he smashed Maggie's face with the flat of the blade, knocking her to the ground. He moved forward.

"You… you don't know what - "

"I know exactly what. What is the point of our life, Maggie? Nobody can die here but we've still killed thousands, tens of thousands. Their minds are taken from them by the years, and all that's left is a husk. You're right. I was wrong. I shouldn't have lied to them; I should have been enraging them. I should have been preparing them for war. Because that's the only thing left to cling to when all the world does is crush you."

Maggie closed her eyes, and Charon leaned in close. "You are my best friend, Maggie, and they hurt you too. You weren't like this until I took you on this ship and made you complicit. But I would rather spend an eternity in the Pit and have one good memory of freedom than live this half-life forever. I don't know who I was back in life, but I remember the feel of water. The real water. And I want to swim again and let my arms stretch wide, if only for a day."

He stepped back, and signalled to his men. They took her down below.

The ship sailed to the edge of the world, and found corpses. They stopped, lowered ladders, sent out a launch. They went to each corpse and slowly, one-by-one, loaded them into the boats.

They hauled them back up and took them on deck. Most of them were bleary, unsure of what was happening. Blankets, hot cocoa and a sympathetic voice were passed around. We're so sorry, the sailors said. You died. You are now in a world of savagery and danger, of sporadic resistance and endless violence, and it is a world of our own making.

If you want to go, they would whisper, then we will take you somewhere safe. We will open up dark Ways for you, and send you somewhere cold and harmless, so you can sleep forever in peace. But if you want to feel like you never died, then come with us. We'll show you what it is to live.

And so the captain hauled his boat around, and lit the seas on fire.

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