Who pays the Ferryman?

By Helen Fayle

Even lit by the artificial suns, moonrise in the Pluto/Charon binary system is a sad, sorry thing compared to the same phenomena on Earth. No pockmarked, shining silver orb to light up the night sky here; Charon, Ferryman of Hades, hides himself under his robes to conceal his burnt, twisted body. The price you pay for being first in the line of fire. How well I know that feeling.

Poor, poor Charon. A boat full of coins could not have saved the ferryman when death came knocking at the door

Sometimes, I can almost feel the ghosts of my personal dead surrounding me. Perhaps never more so than here, I think. There's a certain mythical symmetry to this place that I find hard to resist. Vivienne tells me I worry about it all too much these days, and perhaps she's right. But then, neither of us is quite who we once were.

Rather like this poor, charcoaled little moon.

"The sensors show that it's quite dead." Phoenix's voice echoes in the small "room" s/he has created for us. Vivienne looks up from her book, staring past me at the projection of the outside, her hazel eyes fixed on the blackened ball that hangs in space beneath us.

She looks nervous, and I sympathise. Sometimes, I think I take her for granted. Why she puts up with me is a mystery. Still, we've been through so much over the past few years, she and I: in our searches for Blaise, the ice forests of Breceliande, and Merlin's dragon. My past, present and future. Not necessarily in that order.

My past and future, however, I have chosen, for now, to ignore. Let sleeping time lords lie, I say. I am Taliesin. Let Merlin await his turn. It will come soon enough.

"I was summoned." I tell her. "I'm curious as to why."

"Are you sure it's safe to go down?"

I smile at her. "Of course. They wouldn't ask otherwise," I answer.

"Who?"

A vain hope, perhaps, that she wouldn't ask. In another life, she made her living out of asking questions. In a way, she still does. I cup her chin in my hand, tilting her heart-shaped face until my eyes can meet hers. "Will you trust me?" I ask. She nods.

But then, I knew she would.

I ask Phoenix to land, and s/he takes us down below the surface of the devastated wasteland that is Charon.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a breathable atmosphere in the remains of the old transit station. The cave has been decked out with black and red drapes, embroidered with occult symbols from a dozen worlds and times. And a woman, in black robes, waiting for us, standing in front of a skull clad altar. I have the strangest feeling I should know her from somewhere, despite her face being hooded.

I should know her - or he should? For a moment a memory stirs. Vivienne takes my hand, concerned. The woman in black claps her hands in delight. The sleeves of her robe fall away from her hands, revealing a network of criss-crossing scars along her wrists, one wound still new. Blood rites: how very melodramatic.

"Bravo!" She exclaims. She walks forward, slowly, examining me it seems from all angles. "You really are a quite beautiful paradox in your own right." She smiles, but it is a smile of triumph, not of joy. "A Doctor who is not, an impossibility waiting to happen!" She stands in front of me, and stares into my face.

"Hello, Merlin."

I flinch. Knowing what the name means for me, for my future, how could I not?

How many people are given to know more of their future than their past? I have a link to the one, yet I am bound to the other.

The woman removes her hood. She is younger than I had first thought. Dark haired, pretty, albeit with a petulant set to her mouth. Memory stirs in the breast, fluttering like a raven's wing. This face, overlaid with a tracery of black lines. Flutter - Vivienne's face, younger than now, with the same marks. (Feelings - a sense of panic, urgency, and irritation with a tall fair-haired man who really doesn't deserve to be shouted at). Flutter - the woman's face again, her head cradled against my/his shoulder. Flutter - Another woman with a light streak in her dark hair, her face marred by exposed circuitry.

And a name.

"Lesley."

Ghosts of the dead. They aren't supposed to walk. Rather like ghosts of impossible pasts. Or futures.

Beside me, Vivienne breathes a name. "Faction Paradox."

The woman turns to her. "Perceptive. As ever, Sarah-Jane." Vivienne bristles at the use of the name; she left it behind so long ago

She turns again to me. "We have an offer to make."

I find a convenient outcropping of rock to sit on, pushing the long panels of my black coat out of the way. It's a new one, and shows the dust terribly. Vivienne stays close by, her hand on my shoulder.

"The Faction can have nothing to offer me, anymore." I tell her. Bravado, mostly, but a part of me acknowledges that it is true. She laughs.

"On the contrary. We have a lot to offer you." With a wave of her hand, an image forms in front of us: I recognise the planet shown (how could I not? Part of me is buried there. Briefly.) Vivienne, beside me, draws a sharp breath. Nine women walking away from a ruined building on Dronid; an ornate casket buried under the rubble as a young woman with dark brown hair triggers the explosives she's set. Memory flutters again. Dorotheé. I know/knew all of those women, once. Nine women; nine queens to guide the departed to Avalon.

One of them stands beside me.

The scene changes. A vast hall in the middle of nowhere - a fractal pocket of space/time filled to capacity with beings from all times and cultures. Not all of them grieving, despite the occasion. Iris, in her element. One would almost think she was enjoying the wake.

And a young, bearded, red haired man approaches a woman with greying dark hair and hazel eyes, and makes her an offer she cannot refuse.

Her hand tightens briefly on my shoulder. Without thinking, I reach up and catch it in my own.

"Did I really look that young?" I whisper. Her mouth twitches as she holds back a smile.

Lesley's face holds a hungry look, for a moment. "An interesting choice."

I run my fingers through my hair, thinking that it's about time I asked Vivienne to cut it again. The beard could use a trim as well.

"It was my choice to make," I tell her.

"Of all of them to go back for?" She sneers. "But then, you saved her, once, from the poison I died of." Her voice catches slightly, revealing more than she realises.

"It was a different strain." The memory is stronger than I thought. It's strange somehow, the way the veil moves sometimes over the past. Black curls, thinning despite an apparent age younger than any before him. A tendency to dress in black. "Besides," I continue, keeping my voice mild. "You're alive now."

"A paradox. A return from death to life. A bargain made, and one only possible because of the nature of your - " she pauses, hunting for the right term. "- predecessor."

Vivienne steps forward. "Why don't you save the hyperbole and just get to the point?"

Lesley ignores her, and looks up at me. "A choice, Doctor."

"Taliesin." I correct her.

She shrugs, and continues: "A choice. A chance to save another. One less ghost to haunt you."

I shake my head. "The ghosts of the future haunt me, not the past. They're all dead and gone." I wish I believed it.

"Sara. Katerina. Adric. Angela. Kim. Roslyn." She offers each name almost as a mantra. "The offer is free and clear. No obligation." Her voice softens, pleads. "Please, why not accept? All of them died unjustly, before their time."

Yes, I know this. I also know why such things should be left in the past.

A scent of roses, the rustle of paper as a page is turned.

"You're making the offer to the wrong man. I'm not the Doctor."

"That's not what I hear." She points to Vivienne. "Why else would she be with you? Why else would you have requested a chance to go back for this one, out of all of his companions? Of them all, you just happen to choose the first one he loved." She laughs, and the sound echoes strangely in the cavern. She leans towards me. "What did you bribe the ferryman with to bring you back from the other side?"

"A paradox." I offer, with a grin. Beside me, I can almost feel Vivienne smile. So this woman wants to talk in riddles, does she? Well now, that's my forte, isn't it? "You offer me a chance to save what I didn't destroy, so that you can benefit from the chaos caused?" I laugh. My turn for riddles. "I am the ultimate paradox - I have been everything and nothing, new-born and reborn, bound and free. I have drunk from the waters of the Lethe, the Acheron and the Styx. I've been burned by the waters of the Phlegethon." I smile at her. "And your little coven have no part of me, or power over me."

Lesley is not amused. "You speak nonsense!" She sounds so bitter, so hard.

But then, in the darkness of my nightmares, they all do.

"You want nonsense?" I put a finger to my lips: "Blerwm, Blerwm, Blerwm." She doesn't understand the joke.

Behind her, in the shadows, I can almost see them moving. Ghosts of the dead, awaiting a return journey from the farthest shore? Thought and Memory playing tricks: projecting images, wish fulfilment; a guilty conscience? Perhaps. Just not mine.

A flutter of raven wings.

"Let the dead rest in peace," I tell her.

If only they did. I draw Vivienne closer to me briefly. Would I make this choice if she had been amongst the dead? Keeping my arm around her, I turn and walk back toward Phoenix, waiting patiently in the corner, hir arms folded, looking almost bored.

"Is that your answer?" She almost screams the question at me. "We offer you the chance to bring back the dead, to give them back the life they had, and you walk away?"

"Go," I tell Vivienne, and she steps inside Phoenix's shadow and vanishes from sight. I turn to face Lesley again. "I told you, you're asking the wrong man." Do I believe this myself? Probably not, if the truth be told. One day, it won't be the truth.

But not for a while yet. I wear a black coat, floor length, cut for riding, not an afghan. I am Taliesin, reborn from the goddess, with a new life. I have a whole new universe to discover.

I am not Merlin. I am not the Doctor.

I will be Merlin. I was the Doctor.

Paradox. Perhaps. I have been many things in my times. Maybe that's why they want me.

I am not the man I was, or the man I will be.

But I am, for my sins, myself. And I will not be used. Or taunted. Least of all by the ghosts of a past that I am not yet ready to claim for my own, or those of a future that I am not yet willing to be claimed by.

A paradox can always be paradoctored.

My first return to this universe, and we end up here. This tiny, devastated moon named after the ferryman of the dead, and a ghost offers me more ghosts. Riddles, signs and symbols.

They want to take me on at the game I've made my own? So be it.

Reaching into a pocket, I pull out two coins. Funnily enough, they're silver. High Tagel crowns, with Morgaine's head stamped on them. I throw them at Lesley's feet.

"If you want them back, you pay the ferryman."

I turn and walk into the shadows without looking at her face.