“I still haven’t decided whether to hire you for the next voyage or not,” the Cynical Herald says, glaring at her cup of coffee as though she expects it to bite her. Unlikely: Caligula’s does has a reputation to uphold. “Have I ever met you before?”
The Anonymous Crewmember shrugs, and pours a little more solacefruit extract into their own cup (looks like plain old devilish manufacture to them, though guaranteed to keep hot drinks hot that much longer). “You can’t have been out on the Underzee long, if you haven’t met one or two nameless zailors.”
“No, but that’s rather the point. Have I ever met this particular nameless zailor before? That first time I zailed to the Iron Republic, were you one of those old-timers who laughed, when the ship ate its own hull and half the devils’ docks? Or one of the young ones, who went down screaming in my last mad captain’s crash on Mutton Island?”
“But they’d be dead or Drownies, by your description. Candidates for the Tomb-Colonies, at best. You can see I’m in one piece.”
“And that’s about all I can see. Why under earth can’t I remember what you look like when I’m looking at you?”
“Irrigo rig,” the Crewmember says. “Standard issue. Otherwise all the captains would have to notice we exist, and then where would the navy be?”
The Herald frowns. “I believe you might be serious.”
The first time they die, they are an old, old sailor, peacefully asleep in Wolfstack Docks (or what will be later, once the veins of the city are torn out and renamed). So ancient that the tiny jolt to London as it settles in the Neath triggers a fatal heart attack; they are first to meet the boatman. There is some conversation as to the proper handling of a pole.
The first time they die, they are ten, born and bred in the Neath. There was an accident when the Admiralty's pride and joy, the Aurora, tore into a section of mooring on its maiden voyage, carrying a cheering child out into the black zee. These things will happen.
The first time they die, they went to the Far Country and never came back.
An Unsettling Student, busily taking notes for his undergraduate paper on mortality, throws down his pen and refuses to write any more. “Those can’t all be right.”
“Honey-dreaming is a shared experience. Why shouldn’t death be, as well?”
“Because one of us would have noticed it at university, blast it. I’ve never come across any reports of - of telesthetic death. That just isn’t how the boat works. You go there and you come back by yourself.”
The Crewmember smiles. “Perhaps you’re all too self-centered?”
The second time they died is much clearer.
They weren’t they yet, only she, one of the urchins haunting the passageways above the Flit. The Cowardly Thing had been named with little kindness and even less accuracy: upon being dared to jump a precarious gap towards the highest crow’s nest in the harbour, she had promptly attempted the feat. And plummeted three stories onto a shipment of sphinxstone.
“So I don’t like heights,” they tell their fellow zailor.
Hair turning from sunlight to darkness, he has, and a smile to match. That one won’t stay anonymous long, and isn't that a pity? “I don’t either. But if we don’t steal this zeppelin, who’s going to save the rest of the crew?”
They consider mentioning that it’ll be pointless. Stone’s light will perish in time, the Judgement light will not last forever (and a lot less than that, if the Liberation of Night has their heart’s desire). The boatman will take them all in the end; Neathy fortitude merely prolongs the suspense.
But they are they, now, and zailors must always stick up for each other, or they’ll be nothing left to trust anywhere. Besides, how would they explain it to themselves later?
“Fine. But I’m steering.”
“Now, I would say.” Dr Schlomo smiles paternally, jotting down a casual note here and there (a bit of charity work on his part, after a selection of palace ladies offered to pay his fees). “I would say that you are a very nice young lady, so alarmed by the mere idea of the slow boat that you have formed all sorts of bad, muddled associations. Now you must know, there is nothing to fear! Death is a normal part of London life. It is necessary for you to learn to accept it, without all these silly superstitions. And there is certainly nothing wrong with ordinary boats.”
“Oh, I agree. That’s why I’m running away to zee.”
The third time they died, they had refused to leave the boat.
“If I leave at the Far Country, I’ll die, and if I go back to London, I’ll die later on anyway. And your boat suits me very well. Why shouldn't I stay here?”
She has, after all, no coins for passage. The boatman commits a weakness, or perhaps only a oversight.
And if sometimes London's crewmembers take advantage of this, exchanging places, resting for a little while longer, whispering hints of zee wisdom as one enters the boat and one leaves, well. One anonymous zailor is as good as another. They have enmeshed their overseer in the conspiracy, for wasn't the boatman the first true zailor?
(They never tell the captains. Those lost souls are mad enough already; and besides, they'd just find a way to grind it for echoes.)
This new captain makes for a pleasant change. Doddery, perhaps, too fond of his cat and his bed, but kind in his folly. It’s strange being made much of, but then this ship is so small; they’re the only regular zailor aboard.
Or they are, anyway, until they score a crack shot on a jillyfleur (with a reconditioned deck-gun no less, one that ought to be melted down and shot out of other, better cannons.) It attracts the Captain’s attention. He invites them to dinner in his cabin, and a quiet conversation afterwards.
“Hmm. Mmm. I wonder if you’d care to be my Gunnery Officer?”
A chance to step out of the crowd and make something of themselves, prove their point. Respect, success, fame in Veilgarden and dances at the Shuttered Palace. Perhaps a name, even.
“Lovely offer, sir, and I thank you very kindly. But tell you the truth..."
"Why then, I don’t think I’d know who I was anymore.”
"Come rent! Come buy! London's own Daily Messenger tells the story, ZAILORS ALL ONE MAD GESTALT!"
One nice thing about Fallen London: there are lots of juicy conspiracies making the rounds. One bad thing about Fallen London: they can't all be true.
But as the harassed editors of the city constantly reiterate come press-time, who cares as long as it makes a good story?