An old spacer told me a story the other day, the pirate told his king. About the apparition of an ancient flying ship that appears when disaster strikes, out in the black, to gather up the souls of the dying and carry them home. Wherever in the universe that might be.
You made that up, the king said wearily.
I might have, the pirate replied. But it might be true.
Had there been any justice in the universe, Will Turner's poor spirit would have long since dissolved into the aether, his abused atoms refusing to carry on. But there was no justice, as he knew quite well. The day-to-day business of living was more inescapable in death than it could ever be before breathing your last. Life had an escape hatch, an eventual end to loss and mundanity. Death stretched on without end.
The only rules that mattered were these: what a man could do, and what a man couldn't do. So long as Will's heart kept beating, he could not die. So long as he was Captain of the Dutchman, he could not abandon his duty. So long as he was responsible for those souls lost at sea, he could not help but serve his goddess.
Somewhere in the universe, Will’s heart beat on. That was resignation for you.
“We’re coming up on her now, Captain,” James said, and Will nodded, gave the order.
Ancient sailcloth bloomed in an impossible wind, the crew snapped efficiently to their duties, and they eased out of the rainbow current of hyperspace and up towards the wreck that always awaited them.
This time she was a junker, barely held together by rusty bolts and faith, spinning aimlessly in dead space. She’s called the Icarus, Captain, his second lieutenant supplied from her place at the bow of the ship—she was half-Illarite, and mostly didn’t bother with speaking out loud. Will often wished the whole crew were telepathic. Terran-made, turn of the century. Surprised she lasted this long, to be honest. Anyway, engine’s bust—enemy-fire, most likely. And a hull-breach as well, given the state of those corpses.
“That limits our means of approach,” James observed, and Will nodded. Hull-breaches were tricky. You never knew where luck or genius had preserved a pocket of air for some desperate survivor, and Will refused categorically to take any soul that did not already belong to Calypso away from the wreckage. He knew the dangers of that road.
“Have Xian take Gonzalez and Baker to gather up the poor bastards outside,” Will ordered. There were bodies floating around the borders of the Icarus, some suited up and others clearly sucked from inside, their vulnerable limbs and faces exposed to the void. “We’ll take Killick, Toast, Avery and Saffa and have a look inside.”
James relayed his orders with a shout, and without further delay the landing party swung over to the Delphi with practiced ease, the ropes obeying the Dutchman’s will even in the absence of gravity, avoiding the bodies between them and the bay doors. He passed a still-breathing girl on his way, her helmet cracked but her eyes wide with terror, and thought particularly hard in Xian’s direction, hoping she’d get to her in time.
Then the party was inside the broken shuttle bay, and there was no more time to devote to those left outside. It was a delicate operation, winding their way through a collapsing ship and hoping they wouldn’t destabilize it enough to kill any survivors inside.
It didn’t look at first as though caution had been necessary. Most of the corridors were sealed off, but they opened easily, and the bodies floating inside were waiting for no one but them. They fell to the corpses with practiced facility: waking up their souls took only a touch, and Toast and Avery each took two groups of fifteen with them back to the Dutchman, to wait with the others. Will did not like to ask the question he must ask them all more than once. Killick found a child—Illarite, a boy, couldn’t be more than six years old—and carried him back to the ship personally. Killick had a soft spot for children, and Will wasn’t one to come down on such things. They had progressed through nearly the whole ship and Saffa had gathered up another group to relay back when they came to the hatch.
It looked just like all the others, but––“There’s oxygen behind this door,” Will said, and James nodded his agreement. The air felt different, thicker, sweeter. As always, it took Will by surprise how much he missed it. He hadn’t needed to breathe since his death—none of them had—but the body likes its familiar ways, welcomes back its old laws at the first opportunity. “We’ll have about three seconds if we’re lucky.”
James hit the release, and Will stepped quickly inside before the door slammed shut behind him, preserving the bubble of trapped air left in the room.
Braced against the wall was a living girl, and beside her, one hand pressed to a belly-wound, spitting blood onto the floor, was--
“—You,” Will said, shocked for the first time in a very long time.
The man looked up at Will and issued a laugh straight out of Will’s nightmares. “By the powers, you were right,” he said, looking at Will with familiar yellow eyes and a bloody grin but addressing the girl. “Everything is going to be fine. Isn’t it, young William?”
Will drew a deep breath in. It was hardly the first time he’d reaped someone he’d known. Just the first in a long, long time.
“That remains to be seen,” he replied, and Hector Barbossa laughed again.
The last time Will had seen Hector Barbossa, he’d only been dead about two years. He’d followed the heading Calypso’s compass gave him right to a leaking rowboat in the middle of the Caribbean. Three dead men kept Barbossa company aboard the boat, although there were many more in the waters nearby. Barbossa himself was in dire straits, one leg freshly amputated and white with blood loss, very nearly Will’s to do with as he must. But he greeted Will as though nothing was wrong, as though this meeting was only what he’d been expecting.
“You wouldn’t go taking the soul of the man as united you with your dearly beloved, would you now?” Barbossa had said then, a mocking edge in his voice although his face was tight with pain.
“It depends on whether he’s the same man that once tried to kill me,” Will had replied, bending down to inspect the amputation. The tourniquet had saved Barbossa’s life for the moment, but it would have to be cauterized if that life were to continue. Bootstrap—he’d still had Bootstrap with him then—had added “Same man that did kill your father. I might add.”
“Who among us has not sinned?” Barbossa said on a gasp as Will pulled him up, gesturing for Bootstrap to support his other side. He had a working smithy on the Dutchman, now—it wasn’t as though he lacked the space. Or the time. He’d ask if any on his crew had experience at doctoring, first, but if not he could do it himself.
“And maybe I’ll catch you in a forgiving mood,” Barbossa had added, pulling out a little leather pouch from where it had hung around his neck, and then drawing out a letter. “Seeing as I come bearing glad tidings.” It was hardly the first such attempt that had been made to play on Will’s mercy—a superstition had grown out of his death and marriage, that carrying a token from the King to her lover would mean your life when it mattered most. But even if Will were inclined to betray Calypso—which he was not—the tokens that men usually kept were hardly sent by Elizabeth. Clippings of blonde women’s hair for the most part, although the more imaginative sailor might include a woman’s ring or a pressed flower. This letter, though, was in Elizabeth’s hand, the seal broken, the man who possessed it without scruple or sentiment. Barbossa gave Will a yellow smile. “You’re to be a father, Captain Turner.”
Will hardly remembered carrying Barbossa the rest of the way to the Dutchman, or calling for someone to cauterize the damn wound—in truth, he barely remembered leaving Barbossa at the nearest strip of inhabited land. But he remembered every word of that letter, even all these hundreds of years later, the exact black sprawl of Elizabeth’s letters on the page.
Two months now, she wrote, before giving the letter to Barbossa. It was four months since Barbossa had left her company. Come soon, if you can. I’ll stay at sea for as long as I’m able.
“I need to go home,” he’d told his father, truly desperate for the first time in two years, certain that somewhere his heart was beating far too fast, irrationally afraid that he’d die from it. Up until now he’d thought of being Captain of the Dutchman as a challenge, an obstacle he and Elizabeth were strong enough and brave enough to overcome. Up until that moment he hadn’t ever felt trapped, not in that raw animal way where gnawing through your own bones feels like an option. “I can’t—I can’t miss my child's life, I can't bear this."
"You can," Bootstrap had said, low and heavy. "You must."
Will did survive that loss. And the one after that, and the one after that. And if sometimes he worried that there was only so much loss a person could bear and still stay human--he tried to keep that to himself.
Will rapped out the code on the doors that meant get Xian right away, and waited while James ran off. Hopefully Xian would have the foresight to bring a few spacesuits with her.
“Why did he do that?” the girl asked Barbossa, looking at Will suspiciously. “Why not use the intercom?” Barbossa shrugged. “Might as well ask why he’s dressed like that, or why he talks like that, or how it is you understand him anyway, or how he came through that door without an oxygen tank. Use your wits, girl.”
Modern technology tended to fail around Will, as though the materials didn’t quite understand how to respond to Calypso’s magic, and so the Dutchman was left more or less as he’d inherited it. It made his job considerably more difficult than it rightly had to be, considering the new span of his domain—but Calypso’s magic had no difficulties with human tongues and human hearts, and so Will never had trouble talking to the dead.
“We’ll get you out of here in a minute,” Will said, not bothering to explain—it always took too long. “My lieutenant’s bringing oxygen, and then we’ll get you off this ship. I’ll drop you—“ he looked pointedly at the girl, “—off at the next spaceport we come to.”
“That’s not good enough,” the girl said with passion. “I need to get to Ámfatown tonight, or—“
“—and I noticed you’ve not said a word of what becomes of old Hector,” Barbossa said, giving the girl a glare. “I’m not dying, Captain. I’m neither yours nor Calypso's, not today.”
“Why is that, I wonder,” Will said drily, not paying the girl much attention. So there was something Barbossa wanted to hide. It wouldn’t have mattered. The concerns of the living hardly ever mattered to him anymore. “You never drank from the Fountain.”
Barbossa spat out another mouthful of blood. “Aye. If I had, this wouldn’t be a problem.” He nodded down at where one hand was firmly pressed against his belly, keeping his guts where they belonged. “No, my way to immortality was a little more perilous than dear old Jack’s. All I’ve got is the promise that old age won’t claim me.”
“How unlucky for you,” Will said. Xian had brought the suits; Will could hear her at the edges of his mind. He rapped sharply against the metal, indicating his readiness. “And how is Jack, these days?” He tried to make the question casual, as though his pulse didn’t quicken in anticipation of the answer. He hadn't seen Jack since--years before the last days, when he had hardly been himself.
Barbossa blinked. “Ye don’t know?” he said, sounding genuinely surprised for a moment.
The girl interrupted before Will could begin to reply. “Jack,” she demanded, looking sharply between them. “Captain Jack Sparrow?”
Any answer was lost in the opening of the doors and the abrupt loss of oxygen in the room, as Xian and James entered with suits and tanks. James flinched in surprise when he recognized Barbossa, casting Will a shocked look even as Barbossa grabbed for the helmet.
“I know,” Will said in response. “Still. We have a duty, don’t we?”
“I suppose we do,” James replied grimly, but he didn’t stop himself from scowling at Barbossa, or from manhandling him into the suit.
They weren’t linked up to any sort of comms system, so Will couldn’t hear what either Barbossa or the girl might have been saying inside their helmets. But he could still see Barbossa laughing again, soundless against the plexiglass.
Once, of course, Will had seen Jack often. In the early years of his captaincy he had seen many of his former friends and enemies with regularity. Even a ship crewed by the damned and captained by a man hell itself spat back out could not always be at work. He and Elizabeth never went more than a few months without visiting each other—he appearing to her on the Empress, she rowing over to the Dutchman. But he also made excuses to surface near the Black Pearl, near to Shipwreck Cove, near enough to those humans who knew what he was to carry messages to his wife. Some anxious part of him, perhaps, had also wanted to remind himself that there still was an absence on the earth where William Turner had walked. There had been a place for him there; he had been a man before he was a ghost.
Jack’s frequent appearances had been both aggravating and reluctantly comforting. Will’s world had shrunk to the society of his crew—his father, James Norrington who hadn’t wanted to move on after all, poor murdered Groves, the rest of the world slowly growing strange and unfamiliar—but Jack Sparrow still turned up where least expected, often when least wanted. Once in the rigging of a wreck. Twice in a swamped dinghy. Once treading water while chained to a freshly dead man, waiting for the Dutchman on purpose.
Jack was a thread that tied Will Turner’s life to Will Turner’s death, and Will couldn’t help but value that. Besides, Jack was never impressed by him; never awed or afraid. He never carried tokens from Elizabeth, but sometimes would grab Will’s shoulders and press a scratchy kiss to his cheek, declaring that Bess sent her love.
They had been very, very young.
Later, of course, Will grew to love and hate Jack Sparrow. He loved him because Jack so clearly loved his son, the child Will would gladly have ripped out his own heart for, if he still could. Hated him for knowing that son better than Will could ever hope to, not in a thousand stolen days and hours. Loved him for being one of the wires tethering him to the living world and Elizabeth to the fading past. He had worried often then that Elizabeth would grow away from him, would find someone else to grow old with. Had tried to release her from her vows, more than once. She refused him every time, angrier with every offer, and after William was born and Will had poured his fears out into that letter, she took action. He’d given the letter to Jack, knowing Jack would read it before he passed it on, but baring everything for her regardless.
Will knew what it was to grow up missing a father, to be always full of fear and hope when you looked at the horizon, knew that inborn betrayal whenever you looked at your mother and saw the loss she carried with her, the thin hope that someday he would come back. He wrote that he loved them, loved his family more than he had ever loved anything or ever would again, wrote that she and William would always be protected on the sea, no matter if it meant Will was forsworn. But if there were ever a way she could be happy with a mortal man, someone to live the rest of her days with. If there were ever a father for William who could be there every day of his life. Then he begged her to spare herself and William the pain he and Sarah Turner shared every day of his childhood, with no regrets.
Elizabeth did not meet with him or send word for six agonizing months after Will sent Jack with the letter.
When she finally did, she was aboard the Black Pearl and had both Jack and William with her, no longer the infant Will remembered but a fat and smiling baby who had already spoken his first words—mama, dog-dog, Jack. Elizabeth treated Will coldly at first, but pressed William into his arms, let Will kiss his sweet head and feel the reassuring weight of him against his chest.
“You would not believe the trouble we had getting here, mate,” Jack said, and something about his tone put Will on his guard. “Getting a ship out of a bottle’s no easy trick.”
Will raised his head from his son, took a hard look at them both. Jack deliberately relaxed, leaning against the Pearl’s railing, Elizabeth almost defiant, arms crossed over her chest. “Something’s wrong,” he said, trying not to panic—was it William, was it Elizabeth, was she sick, had something happened. “Tell me what.”
“Why don’t you let me take the lad,” Jack tried, making a grabbing motion for William that Will easily deflected, “and you and the missus can converse all you like.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Elizabeth said, giving Will a level stare. “I’d say that something’s been put right.”
“Tell me,” Will said, tightening his grip on his son. “Elizabeth. Please.”
Jack shrugged and grabbed Elizabeth’s hand. “Easier to show you, really.” Before Will had time to react, he’d drawn a knife and slashed a bloody line down Elizabeth’s palm, right over the scar both she and Will bore from the Isla de Muerta. Will stepped forward in alarm, but Elizabeth held up that same hand to stop him, showing him the wound. As he watched, the cut slowly sealed itself up, leaving clean skin beneath it.
“We drank from the water of life,” Elizabeth said, voice trembling just a little. “We’re like you now. So there’s no getting rid of me, do you understand that, William Turner? Not now, not in a hundred years, not ever. And you’re never to try again, because there’s no use. Is that clear?”
Will had passed little William to Jack then, and although he didn’t mark it at the time he would think of the expression on Jack’s face later, when all he had was time to go over his memories. Jack was looking right at Elizabeth, and for an instant his face was every bit as resigned and stricken as Sarah Turner’s had been, whenever she looked out to sea.
Before he had learnt to give up hope, Will had consoled himself with the memory of that look, with the careful thought that maybe somewhere Elizabeth was happy, that maybe she had found someone to live with after all. That maybe if he ever found Jack again, Elizabeth would be near.
The captain’s cabin was spelled for oxygen. Calypso had been happy to grant him favors once, when she was freshly delighted in being free of her bonds. Little William had loved the look of the underwater sea as a child, pressing his hands against the cabin windows and begging to see sharks and mermaids up close. It worked in the void of space as well as it had under the waves. Barbossa and the girl were brought there—no other survivors made it back to the Dutchman.
Nimiar was the current ship’s doctor, and since she was quarter-Hephestian her healing almost always took. She stitched Barbossa up while Will gave James the helm and called for a runner to bring the girl food and drink.
“How is this possible?” the girl asked, looking around the cabin with undisguised amazement, mostly ignoring the minor surgery taking place on Will’s bed. “What is this place?”
“Purgatory,” Barbossa offered, hissing with pain as Nimiar stitched his organs back in place, sealing the work up with her spittle. “Limbo. The boat as crosses the river Styx.”
“Something like that,” Will agreed.
“Magic,” the girl said, still seeming a little dazed. It was often this way, with survivors. Either they went soft and awed or they got angry. “That—makes sense.” She refocused on Will, a familiar stubborn look settling over her features. “I need to get to Ámfatown as soon as possible. By tonight, if you can. My fiancé’s life hangs in the balance.”
“We’re not a taxi service,” Will told her. “I am sure your errand is urgent, but this ship has urgent matters of her own. I’ll set you off at the nearest suitable port, but I can’t offer more than that.”
“Ah, young William,” Barbossa said, every bit as sly and mocking as he had been seven hundred years ago, under a different sun. “Don’t you want to hear the maid’s errand first?”
Will sighed. “If it has to do with Jack—“
“Aye,” Barbossa said, gritting his teeth as Nimiar tightened a stitch. “And no better than when you saw him last, I’d wager.”
“Jack Sparrow stole something from me,” the girl said in a sharp voice. “I need it back.”
It had been two hundred years since the last time Will had seen Jack, but the familiar mixture of fondness and frustration still welled up. “What did he steal?” Will asked, resigning himself to becoming entangled.
“That’s none of your business,” she replied bluntly. “But if I don’t bring it to Feria tomorrow then Miri’s going to die.”
“It’s good to see you’ve learned caution since nearly getting us killed,” Barbossa said, as Nimiar finally pronounced him healed enough. “But you’d best be telling him everything.” He gave Will a yellow wink. “Hadn’t you, Miss Turner?”
Will hadn’t met one of his descendants in over two hundred years, had been fairly convinced that the line must have ended. He hadn’t been able to find out since that terrible day when Calypso tore him from the Earth.
But this Miss Turner had the look, when Will truly stopped to look at her. She didn’t look a thing like either him or Elizabeth, not with her brown skin and her short dark hair. But there was something about her eyes and the stubborn set of her mouth that reminded Will of his poor Charlotte, dead some five hundred years now. Charlotte was William’s third child, and Will had loved her to distraction, brave wild-haired Charlotte who of all his grandchildren most took after her grandmother. Charlotte died at sea. The only child Will could be there for, at the last.
“Ah,” Will said, his voice coming out softer than he’d intended. She was glaring at him, Charlotte’s many-times great-granddaughter, knowing she had missed something but not knowing what. “I see.”
“What do you see?” she asked, and her irritation seemed familiar now, lit something up in the hollow of his chest. The memory of loss, he thought, or the delicate fear of experiencing it again. “What does my name mean to you?”
“It means he’ll help us get your treasure back,” Barbossa said, and the laugh was back in his voice. “He’ll help us hunt down Jack Sparrow, and he’ll help you save your pretty maid.”
She gave Will a challenging stare. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” Will promised, because the ache in his chest demanded it. “I will.”
Will called James in, because if anyone could gauge whether Will was going to compromise the ship--if Will would compromise himself--it was James Norrington. The runners came in with food for Miss Turner and Barbossa, and then she told them her story.
Her name was Nephtalie Turner, her father was Jonah Turner, her grandfather had been Amara Turner, her great-grandmother Eofrecina Turner. She didn’t know her lineage beyond that.
Nephtalie was affianced to a Hephestian girl called Miri, who’d been kidnapped by a local death cult. Hephestian law dictated that Miri was now legally the cult’s property, and so Nephtalie could do nothing to save her from moonrise sacrifice in a month’s time. In desperation, Nephtalie had consulted the Oracle of Xifeng—a computer program, from what Will could make out—which had told her that the only thing she could offer the cult was a certain necklace in her father’s possession. If she offered to trade it for Miri, the deal would be accepted.
The trouble was, Nephtalie’s father lived on Hestia. She spent all of her credits flying halfway across the system at top-speed to get the necklace, and on the return journey she’d had to stow away on a federal cruiser, since nothing else would get her back fast enough.
Only she wasn’t the only stowaway. Jack Sparrow had seemed friendly enough, willing to help her keep from getting captured, very interested in her story. She hadn’t told him everything, of course—she wasn’t stupid—but he’d managed to figure out that she was bringing the necklace to a death cult.
The next thing Nephtalie knew, federal officers were raiding her hiding place, her necklace was gone, and a sleek ship by the name of Siren had lost the cruiser in an asteroid field with Jack Sparrow somehow aboard.
Nephtalie had been summarily dumped at the nearest port for processing.
“Which is where she had the unbelievable good fortune of coming across myself,” Barbossa interjected into Nephtalie’s story, tossing an apple in one hand and giving Will a wink. “A man always keeps an ear out for familiar names, and when a girl with that last name starts raging publicly about Jack Sparrow, well. A man pays attention.”
“Hector can track the Siren,” Nephtalie said with a familiar seriousness. “He has this compass, and when I hold it, it gives us a reliable bearing. I don’t understand the mechanics exactly, but it’s worked so far.”
“And what have you promised him, exactly,” James said, giving Barbossa a dark look, “For his generosity?”
Nephtalie spoke over Barbossa’s protest—“Look, I don’t know what your history is, but I trust him. He broke me out of prison, he got me aboard The Icarus, and he didn’t have to. He didn’t have to do any of this.”
“No,” Will said grimly. “He didn’t.”
Barbossa sighed. “I can’t have changed in the intervening centuries, William? A man can’t have developed a conscience, or a sense of curiosity?”
“Not in my considerable experience,” James said, arms crossed over his chest, and Barbossa rolled his eyes.
“Assume I want to see Jack for reasons of me own, and leave it there. Carry on, lass.”
“But I’ve already told them everything,” Nephtalie said impatiently. “The feds caught up to the Icarus, we got hit, the Siren’s due to make berth at Ámfatown tonight for fuel, and it’s my best chance of catching Sparrow. If you’re going to help me, you have to help me now.”
Will looked over at James, and James shook his head. He was right; it was a bad business, and Barbossa couldn’t be trusted. But she was family.
“You haven’t told me what the necklace is,” Will said, and she blinked. Barbossa let forth a heavy sigh, and Will knew he’d guessed right.
“It’s nothing. A metal symbol. Pa says it’s old, but even he doesn’t know how old. He thinks there could be some religious aspect to it, and that’s why the cult wants it.”
“Would you mind drawing it for me?” Will asked her, and she did so at once, crossing to his desk and making a few clean strokes on the paper he’d left out.
She brought him back the drawing, and Will saw that it was a key. The key to a locked chest, a key Will hadn’t seen since he gave it to his son and asked him to keep it safe.
Nephtalie’s necklace—the one Jack had now, the one a death cult coveted, the one Barbossa had surely decided to steal himself—was the only hope anyone ever had of killing Will Turner. Or of blackmailing him, for those stupid enough to assume he still valued his existence.
“Before you go jumping to conclusions,” Barbossa said hastily, “I wasn’t planning on killing you. Or otherwise double-crossing you. It’s just that—you can’t blame a man for wanting to have some leverage, if the worst should befall him.”
Will started to laugh.
It wasn’t that Will had a death-wish. He’d died a very long time ago. But he’d wanted to stop existing for a very long time as well. Things were very bad when William died. He and Elizabeth barely saw each other for several years afterward, both too grief-stricken to bear it. It felt like they’d only just found a fragile comfort in each other when Charlotte died, and it fell apart again. They found each other again eventually—they always did, their shared grief and shared love and shared scars binding together where their shared name might not have—but it was harder after that. Harder to be soft with each other. Harder to share their lives, if not their memories. Life changed everything, even when it could not touch you.
At the time Will thought it was because they’d both lived past their natural human lifespans, and worried that the sick feeling in his heart was the result of his humanity stretching too thin within his mortal body. Time kept rolling on, faster now that he was older, and with every year he felt sicker, duller, less real. Less human, he supposed. He remembered the way Barbossa had spoken of that ancient curse: how food turned to ash in the mouth, how the body lost its pleasures, how miserable it was to feel nothing, not the wind in your hair or the warmth of another’s touch. What if that hadn’t been a curse, he wondered. What if that was just the inevitable outcome of living past your time?
Elizabeth gave him back his heart, but having it close didn’t help. He returned the chest to the Isla de los Cruces, hardly caring about its fate, and moved through the world as through a heavy fog. Bootstrap finally passed on, and he barely marked it, as if his long separation from his heart had dulled the sensation of loss completely. The only thing that felt real to him was his duty, and it grew harder to discharge as time passed. There were so many dead. More every year.
Elizabeth no longer lived most of her life at sea, and decades passed when he only saw her that once every ten years. He remembered now that she had seemed worse every time he saw her, that she had treated him with restrained care, the way you handle a very old book that might crumble to dust in your hands. At the time he had only been distantly glad to see her, incapable of more nuance than that. Once she had wept in his arms, and he couldn’t understand why. He’d stroked her hair and hummed lightly and eventually thought to ask who she was crying for. You, she said.
Will didn’t understand his slow sickness until he was abruptly and terribly healed of it. Seventy years ago Calypso appeared to him. She looked much as she always had, barefoot and liquid-eyed, a mocking smile on her mouth.
“Oh, my William,” she said, touching the scar over his heart. “I forgot all about you. That was cruel.”
“I have done my duty,” Will said vaguely. “But there’s something wrong.
Calypso gave him a grave nod. “The ocean here is dying. And you are the sea. You’ve been dying, too, slow and sure.”
“Oh,” Will said. He didn’t feel much of anything at the news. “Will it be over now?”
“No, sweetheart,” Calypso replied, and she kissed him. Will closed his eyes. She drew back, and pressed her hands to his shoulders, and he felt curiously as though he were falling, the world dropping away beneath him. “I give you a blessing, Will Turner. And I have work for you.”
When Will opened his eyes, he felt more awake than he had in centuries. The ocean was gone, and so was Calypso, and stars and night surrounded his ship. Then he understood everything, the true depth of what he had lost, what Calypso had taken from him. A blessing, she’d said. What is a curse but a blessing that can’t be borne? Having feeling finally return to his body, realizing that he’d been little more than a ghost animating a body for aching long years, knowing with cold horror that he’d been hurting the woman he loved for a very long time—and knowing that she was entirely beyond his reach. He couldn't bear this after all.
He raged for three days, sending every member of his crew on to the afterlife––except for James, who he’d meant to save for last. James had saved him from ending up like Davy Jones, letting Will vent the full force of his grief with utter sympathy before blacking his eye and tying Will to the mast of his own ship.
“I’m sorry for what you’ve lost,” James had said with brutal crispness, “But we’ve all suffered loss.” And Will remembered finding his soul adrift in a rowboat several years after his death, and the calm way he’d accepted the offer Will made him. It seems I’m not meant to pass on, he’d said without bitterness. He’d refused every offer Will made him since.
“You have to think about what you can do and what you can’t do,” James continued, looking at him steadily. “You can’t kill Calypso. You can’t kill yourself. You can’t get the past back, and you can’t find Elizabeth. You can do your duty, and ensure that what happened to you never happens to another soul. Stop waiting for something else to happen." A slightly bitter smile crossed his mouth. "That's how the rest of us cope, at any rate."
“I can’t,” Will said hoarsely. “I can’t lose myself again.”
“So don’t,” James said. “But stop nursing the secret hope that you’ll find a way out. Stop pretending that someday you’ll get your happy ending. You’ve had a happier time of it than most, and you were always going to lose it someday. That’s what it means to be alive.”
“We’re not alive,” Will had protested, and James did smile then.
“Are we not?” he’d asked.
And that was it. The secret to his eternal death. There was no ending, no escape from loss, no way out. You had to keep on living. Hoping for anything else would only make it harder.
But oh, hope was hard to give up.
Will and Nephtalie sketched out a plan, Barbossa trying now and again to interrupt while James offered the occasional critique. It was the sort of plan that Will hadn't involved himself in for centuries: full of deception, theft, the impersonation of several remarkable characters, the hope that the Dutchman's brig would hold Barbossa until the key was back in Will's possession, and very likely a sea battle. And at its heart, Jack Sparrow, an ancient key, and whoever had piloted the Siren to Jack's rescue.
"This fiancée of yours," Will asked Nephtalie. "Do you love her?"
She looked back at him with clear eyes. "I'd die for her."
"Good," Will said, and thought about sun-bleached hair, lean limbs, sad eyes. Here's what no one tells you about love: it's built on the fear of death. The universal need to be understood and accepted before your memory crumbles into history, the wild need for touch to affirm life, the desire to keep your beloved until death did you part. What was love without loss? What was love without fear? Elizabeth could be in Ámfatown tonight, and despite everything he knew, his pulse still quickened. Hope ran hot in his veins, and he was afraid. What was one more loss he could not bear, in the face of the centuries-old graveyard behind him? Maybe he'd never learn the lesson. Maybe the day he did would be the day Calypso finally let him go. "That's good."
He left Barbossa and Nephtalie in the cabin after taking the ancient black compass from Nephtalie and promising to follow the heading to the Siren. James followed him.
“Do you think she’ll be with Sparrow?” James asked quietly.
“I think it’s possible,” Will answered in the same tone. He reached the helm, dismissed Xian, who immediately began broadcasting orders to make way, and opened Jack’s compass. The needle flickered and then settled. His north was where it had always been.
“I still don’t think it’s a good idea,” James said, even as Will adjusted their heading, and they made ready for hyperspace. “You’re risking more than yourself.” It was true; if the wrong person unlocked the dead man’s chest, Will was risking the safety and surety of his crew, the souls yet to be ferried, all the dead soon to be lost to the endless depths.
“So we’ll have to make certain I survive,” Will agreed, and cast James a slantwise look. “Unless you’d like to take my place?”
“Not on your life,” James replied, as Will knew he would.
Will smiled. “Then we’re off to catch a pirate, Commodore. Or do you have other objections?”
There were plenty other objections to be made, of course: what was to be done with Barbossa, how were they to save the girl without relinquishing the key, whether Jack had stolen the key for Elizabeth or for reasons of his own, whether Nephtalie herself was likely to double-cross them when she realized the importance of the key—Will knew very well the lengths a Turner would go for love––what he’d do if Elizabeth really was on the Siren.
“None,” James said, who knew him well. “Captain.”
“Good,” Will said, and snapped the compass closed. The current of hyperspace opened before them like the mouth of a whirlpool; in a moment they would be lifted up and carried away, to whatever lay ahead. His empty chest ached, but he started to smile, despite himself. “Then we'd better carry on.”