La Fahyette (fahye) wrote,
La Fahyette

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DVD commentary: fortuna fugit

Emma asked, Ji encouraged.

Warning: contains less science than usual, but bonus discussions of French verbs and genrebending.

PLEASE don't read this unless you've already read the story itself. It will ruin all sorts of things for you.

First of all: I had very little idea of what this would become when I started it. It was 2am, I was hot and very tired and suffering from godawful insomnia, and my mind just kept ticking and ticking and ticking and eventually I got out of bed again, because I needed to create something or I'd never be able to sleep at all. I'd been tossing around the idea of writing something short and steampunky for Emma and Aria, so I figured I'd start there. Having The Sea and the Mirror on my mind, with its wonderful pastiche of poetical forms and prose, I wondered if I could manage something like that. So the first thing to be written was the sonnet, and the structure of the whole story started to crystallise around it. Note that I still had no idea what the plot would be, just that there would be a love story in there somewhere. I then created a picture folder called 'Steampunk', copied a few random images into it from other picture folders, and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up with a few more details quite clear in my head; enough that I could google for the few remaining images that I needed, do the cropping and sepia-ing, and arrange the poem-and-photo skeleton. I still hadn't written a word.

I am honestly not sure at which point in the above process the title appeared. I think it was during the 2am session, because the thought process was blurry and went something like this: tempus fugit -> time flies -> time running out -> luck running out? -> I wonder what the Latin for 'luck' is -> oh, isn't that nice and alliterative. Luck itself is not really a theme of the story, but luck running out kind of is. And I kept it in the Latin because it immediately links it to the well-known 'tempus fugit', and time is DEFINITELY a theme.


(a romance)

for Emma & Aria with great affection from Fahye

I knew that I wanted to drop hints about Anna being eyai all the way through, even though I was hoping that the realisation would only occur at the end. So the use of the key at the very beginning tells you that it's far more important than just a love token. Clue #1.

Tracing geometric designs with the tip of one glove in the dust that frosts Anna's workbench -- new dust, busy glittering dust, nothing denoting age or stagnance in any sense at all -- you wish that she would eat something, if only to make you feel less awkward when you put food into your own mouth.

Clue #2. Anna doesn't eat; obviously, I kept the context ambiguous here, otherwise it wouldn't be a clue.

"We are fighting entropy," she says as she hooks a metal ring into place and then bites down on it, forcing its edges into rigid contact. Her teeth are small and neat, her incisors rotated so that when she smiles widely enough she is transiently vampiric. "The world dissolves, nothing in it can help but become more disordered; there is little more illustrative of this essential truth than a junk shop."

'We are fighting entropy' and 'the world dissolves' were the two sentences that flew into my mind immediately when I had the skeleton in place and was staring at all the blank white space in between. It probably says quite a lot about this story that I think the romance + science of it sprang directly from the sentiment expressed in this xkcd strip. See also: this essay on the red-blue analysis of Doctor Who, which talks about fighting entropy a lot, and is why I had it on the brain.

The thing about the rotated incisors is a feature that I have myself, and one I've always wanted to bestow upon a character. (Note: I do not actually resemble Scarlett Johannson. Sadly.)

You will not argue that point; in all your life you have never set food inside a place so closely approaching the Platonic ideal of chaos theory as Anna's shop and workroom. Two feet inside the door it is impossible not to bang one's elbow on the pieces of candelabra stashed all askew upon a shelf that also holds mirrors, teacups, ancient cushions studded with needles, and hollow leather sheaths for blades that could very well hang upon the opposite wall. Separation and disorder. The floor is scattered with antiques that are neither functional nor aesthetic, just old, technology crammed together with art and anachronism, and beneath it all is laid a thick collage of rugs.

About the most useful thing that Microsoft Word's spellchecker has ever done for me is to tell me that I can't write 'pieces of a candelabra' because candelebra is actually a plural. Not really liking 'pieces of a candelabrum', I just removed the pronoun. (Yes, I wanted to keep the 'a' at the end of the word, because 'a' is my favourite vowel and if I can use in place of anything else -- especially an 'e' or 'u' -- I will. Yes, this can be something of a handicap. Yes, it informs my word choices quite a lot.) I am sure you can picture the room I'm describing. It's like a time machine munched its way through the urban garages and junk drawers of many centuries, semi-digested everything until it was useless, and then vomited in Anna's shop. Which was not exactly the kind of elegant imagery I was aiming to use in the story itself, but it's, uh...vivid?)

"Things end up here as fragments of many once-harmonious wholes," Anna continues. "Grains of chaos, but we are creating order from this chaos. Not reversal but renewal."

Blah blah RENT. 'The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation!'

She bites down on another link and you stare out of the shopfront window at the livery of police horses and the endless crowd that melts to and fro beneath the arch of the stairs to the Tube station. You're hungry but unwilling to broach the subject; it's probably impolite; you lose track of the etiquette sometimes.

Okay. Worldbuilding. This was going to be sort of Austen-esque steampunk and then a little way in it turned around and said, you know what, I think I'm actually sci-fi, but the muslin skirts can stick around if they like.

Story: Deal with it.

So...the vague impression is that we're somewhere in the future where period dress and (to a certain extent) manner of speech and etiquette has come back into fashion, because let's face it, fashion works in cycles and eventually these cycles will be pretty damn far-reaching. Though I managed to avoid much mention of technologies and communication, so it's kind of ambiguous as to whether it IS the future or if it's a kind of alternate timeline in which everything gets jumbled up together. Like Anna's shop. I do not actually know a lot about this London and this world; the metaphor I came up with is that I woke up with a dark room in my head, and started poking around with a torch (okay, Americans, a torch is a flashlight) and describing everything that the light fell onto. There are a lot of missing pieces and unexplored dark corners.

Anna laughs. Anna knows you so well, and Anna wears lace-edged dresses that cover her ankles and the skin of her perfectly white shoulders, but she cares even less for conversational etiquette than you do. "Eat if you want to, Will. I would not have you fade away under my eyes due to your own sensibilities."

Clue #3. Anna wears dresses that cover her shoulders. I am impossibly fond of Anna, by the way, she is so much more capable than Will. Will is a lazy romantic musician.

Certainly Anna herself is in no danger of fading away. Her hands are gloved with that same dust, catching the light of the candles and the lamps, and there are golden patches on her face where she has traced the curve of her smile and pushed her hair from her eyes; for months now you have been accustomed to taking off your clothes and releasing small clouds of this dust into the air. Anna's fingers move quickly, adeptly, reaching into saucers and jars without any semblance of forethought and hooking out the next fragment of chaos to be included in her project, creating the universe one glass button at a time. Hidden under her muslin skirts and her petticoat is a gun with someone else's initials engraved into the barrel, and her brown boots with their fashionable heels and their lethal steel toes.

Clue #4, in case the comment about food had been taken to mean some kind of eating disorder. Anna is very healthy! The gold dust kind of infiltrated the entire story, as dust has a way of doing, but it's not Pullman-Dust. It's not representative of anything. It's just dust. I like the idea that Anna has some kind of sixth sense of unconscious power when it comes to the creation of working...things...from useless junk, even though she could never break the process down for you or tell you what it is she's doing. It's not quite unconscious 'programming', but it's close.

I am almost certain that the gun belonged to her owner, back when she had an owner. I don't know what happened. Anna and Will are incredibly Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern in that the only part of their lives I know about is that onto which the torch beam fell. They have interesting backstories and an exciting future, but I don't know what they are.

You cross to the cupboard and take out some bread for sandwiches, and behind you Anna lets out a satisfied sigh. "Is it done?" you enquire.

"Yes, I believe so." There's a brief clatter as she pushes her chair backwards and goes to put it in the shop's single good display case. "I'll get a decent price for this one."

You sit down again to construct your sandwich: bread and cheese and raisins, you've had far worse meals. Anna is singing to herself as she walks back into the workroom, but she stops mid-note to ask, "What time do you start work tonight?"

My mother's favourite sandwich is peanut butter, honey, cheese and sultanas. The British are weird.

"Seven. Enough time for the clientele to avoid the after-work crowds full of inconvenient eyes."

"Long live London," Anna says, the alliteration curling around her tongue like apple peel under a knife. "Long live the pipe and the tube and the eyai. May their paths never cross unless it be for the one to take advantage of the other."

Yes, yes, I like the apple peel metaphor too. A lot. As I told Kelsey: the combination of blade and apple-tartness exactly captures the tone of Anna's sarcasm. Anyway, this was the first mention of the pipe/tube/eyai social structure. To spell things out: the upper class is the pipe, the lower is the tube. (I'm working off the assumption that the future will bring greater polarisation of wealth.) These are slang terms derived from the underground Tube and the Pipe, the second train system built above the city, which you can only afford to travel on if you have a lot of money. Again, I don't know a lot about pipe society -- I suspect there are more than just trains up there, that the city is becoming like its own double-decker buses, creating a very physical separation of the upper and lower classes.

If you hadn't worked it out already, eyai = A.I. = automata industria (and also, of course, artificial intelligence, though I came up with 'eyai' before it switched genres, so I didn't want to use a futuristic term). It was 'ayai' originally, because of my thing with the letter 'a', but Nny made me change it so that the pronunciation was clearer. Sigh.

"Are we being ironic now?" You laugh and pull a corner off the sandwich. "It's difficult to tell."

"We would not be British, my dear William, if we did not gripe at the impossibility of social mobility whilst also embracing it as the status quo." Anna shakes her finger at you, creating a tiny fountain of golden dust motes, and then leans down to kiss you on the cheek.

It strikes you that there is no easy way to say, I love you and it feels like I imagine a finger swirled through caramel might feel. Anna's fondness for whimsical speeches is, sadly, often far greater than your own ability to suppress self-consciousness for long enough to voice them, and so you do nothing more than turn your face to catch her lips, silent and smiling.

Oh Will <3 So British. He has all these grand lyrical thoughts but never really says them out loud.

"I found something," she says then. She kisses you once more and pulls away. "I even kept it intact, to show you."

Anna finds; she does not steal or buy or scrounge, but she finds. She has learned to survive by building value out of the worthless, and she's never once been robbed, which is a near-miracle when one takes the neighbourhood into account.

Again with the handwaving of Anna's abilities. I have no idea where she finds things. She is a very secretive, inscrutable girl and refused to tell me.

"Does it make music?" you ask.

"One day you'll stop asking that question."

"One day I'll be right."

This is their little injoke, because Will likes to try and guess what her creations do, and he's really hoping that one day she'll make some kind of fantastic new instrument.

She laughs. "Look." She lifts her clenched fist and releases the fingers so that loops of beads dangle down between them. "St Martin's Cross." The slender pendant adorning the amber rosary is hardly a cross at all; in the language that Anna's workshop has taught you, you might haltingly call it Celtic, but more than anything else it reminds you of the Egyptian cartouche with its length and asymmetry. Containing the essence of a name and defining a coherent whole from the fragments of the glyphs. God arising from the symbols of another empire.

"The creation of life," you say, "would that fall under the definition of fighting entropy, or increasing it?"

I like this question. I think it's interesting. Because Anna's work is all about taking messy bits and making orderly forms out of them...but what this story wants to say is that life isn't orderly, life is chaotic, and in the end of this particular story -- and in countless stories of AI and transhumanism -- the creation of life leads to very real, very dangerous chaos.

"Well." Anna brushes back her hair for the hundredth time and there is a new brassy streak amongst her pale gold curls. "I daresay there are learned academics at Oxford and Cambridge who would disagree, but I am of the opinion that it rather depends on one's starting materials."

She's making a distinction between the 'creation' of human beings, and the fact that humans have learned to create life from the materials that they find around them. Anna is inscrutable. I think what she means is that -- as I said above -- humans tried to create order and ended up with something that they could not actually comprehend or control forever.

we hold the thread of time one at each end
and weave it through the tiny biting teeth,
hear ticks and tocks and do not think to mend
the tinny screams that echo dim beneath

The sonnet. The sonnet is about the same thing as the story; or rather, considering the order in which I wrote them, perhaps the story is about the same thing as the sonnet. It's about presuming to trap & control the passing of time (or, in the story's case, life itself), and ignoring the fact that perhaps time is neither two-dimensional nor something that takes kindly to rigid control. And the fact that if you build a society or a shared experience around such a presumption, then inevitably things will implode.

It's dark and the air sticks to your skin as you emerge from underground, and the metal post of the Tube sign is clammy against your palm, but it's been a long time since you've been able to step up onto the street without using the post as a pivot; your hand flies out and the metal catches it and it's soothing, and when you let go you could be facing in any direction at all.

Okay, so when I wrote 'your hand flies out and the metal catches it' I spent a little while admiring the rhythm and then realised that it was similar to something I'd read before, so I went and found pogrebin's story the cheap mechanics of melodrama, which contains the line 'he falls and the magic catches him'. And then I reread that fic about three times, and then I kept writing. So bits of it inform the rest of the story, just little turns of phrase and gaps where I might normally have put a comma but instead left it out in order to create more momentum.

At night the slam and whistle of the Pipe is even more piercing in the damp stillness of the air, rattling past high overhead, carrying people you'll never meet to places you'll never go. Well -- that's not entirely true. Some of these men with their polished canes and their obsessive attention to the ebb and flow of fashion; some of them, and even some of the women, you have certainly met, if only in a professional capacity. Not that you could put a name to them or even recognise a face; they are all the same to you, and you have no doubt that you could stand square in front of them and they would trickle out their vowels in voices bred above the fog and say: you people are all the same to me. The back of your head they might recognise, if you lifted your hands just so. The tone of your singing; but even then it would be empty without the resonance of strings.

Will is not a revolutionary. Like Anna pointed out, he has no real resentment of the class structure; he accepts it, and while he grumbles sometimes and entertains the occasional grass-is-greener fantasy about what it must be like to have a lot of money...he likes his life. And he doesn't want to stop playing psallopiano. The attitude I'm trying to convey here is one of mild mutual contempt.

Clattering down another set of stairs to reach the back entrance, and one of Marie's heavymen lets you in without a word. Noise seeps out into the night through the half-open door before it closes and you're left in the storeroom. The benches lining the walls hold motionless rows of wound-down automata industria, their neatly coiffured heads bent forward as though in sleep. One of them has a little energy left; her fingertips jerk and she mumbles, "Anything you want -- let me -- anything you you you you…" with the familiar faint slur, but by the time you part the curtains at the other end of the room she has stopped moving entirely.

This was one of the images that showed up very vividly in the torchlight. I know that the one who is almost wound-down has large, loose blonde curls. I know that the room looks like a high school gym changing room. I know that the curtains are a dark red. And I needed to have a demonstration of the stuttered speech pattern that signifies a wind-down so that it would be recognisable in Anna at the end of the story. So this is clue #5a, in a way. It also demonstrates the kind of 'programming' that the eyai of the Gallows have.

The Gallows is thick and warm with smoke and with the way the light seems to defy geometry, creating intimate dimensions of shadow for the jealous cradling of poker cards and satin-covered breasts.

"Will. No Mozart tonight, if you love me in any way at all."

Because someone has painstakingly tranposed and adapted the classics to be played on psallopiano; it's not an instrument for showtunes. It's about big sounds.

"How are you, Louisa?"

"Same as ever." Louisa, smiling at you, beautiful in a blue lace skirt with a hemline that climbs and dips with the same aquatic extremity as the tide, and the sleeves of her bodice falling low over the shoulders to reveal the dark hole and minute numbering there. Some places like to cover the locks up, but the Gallows defies fashion in order to flaunt the evidence of master-artifice, the flaw that says: look what we can afford. Look what you can afford; oh, yes, the Gallows is a pipe establishment at heart, for all that it's only accessible by Tube.

The Gallows is pretty much lifted directly from the establishments in Deadwood: it's a brothel and a casino, and it's got a wonderfully dichotomous atmosphere of expense and decadence -- magic shows, a psallopianist, beautiful decor, eyai girls -- and a dark, dirty, 'roughing-it' air that appeals to the bored gentlefolk looking to explore the dark underbelly of society. Marie is pretty much a genius; Marie, by the way, is not eyai at all. She just owns a lot of them.

"Mr Pennsworth, you know you're not supposed to distract the girls."

Louisa gives a roll of her green and languid eyes, followed by a nod that's more gratitude than anything else, before she passes you by on her way to the baccarat tables.

"My apologies, Marie."

"How would it look for us if she were to wind down in the middle of the floor? In bed?" Marie sweeps you sideways to the bar and pushes you onto a stool. "If all of my eyai begin to waste precious energy exchanging pleasantries with musicians, I'll be out of pocket." Her thin finger tipped with polish the colour of charred silk, tilting your chin up with wiry pressure. "Don't think I won't dismiss you if I have to."

I needed the word 'energy' here so that it would ring a bell when Anna brought up 'energetic' in the last scene. Clue #5b.

You smile at her, playing youth, playing talent; it's a dirty card but it's no dirtier than her mood, and you have little fancy for being caught up as scapegoat in whatever has spoiled her poise tonight. "You know that there are perhaps two other psallopianists in all of London who can match me, Marie, and they are both playing in the pipe bars."

Oh, Will. He's kind of a brat sometimes.

"We don't need a psallopiano," is her parting shot, but it's an empty threat and you both know it, because she needs you exactly where you are now: climbing the narrow stairs and making yourself comfortable on the stool.

As ever you take two deep breaths and release your sense of identity, because there is no room for it within the music. Easier if your feet fall onto the pedals and your hands onto the keys without the sensation of a you behind them. The overture is always hands and feet, nothing more, introducing the theme, just like in every church in London every Sunday of every week. The overture is nothing special.

End of overture -- attaca -- inhale on the fading notes and push the song out as your hands dance the next set of chords. It takes a final, unique kind of self-dissolution to throw your voice upwards in full confidence that the strings above your head will catch the vibrations and harmonise. By the time the counterpoint descends and reaches your ears you have turned the page and changed the key. No time to listen. Five staves of five lines each is the skeleton, and all else depends on the random angles and tensions of the psallostrings, which is why the music pouring down to fill the Gallows could never be reproduced on another occasion or in another venue.

Attaca is a musical term denoting the transition from one movement of a piece into another with no pause in between. 'Psallo' is a Latin word meaning 'to sing along with a stringed instrument'. These paragraphs about the psallopiano are some of my favourites, and I think I managed to convey the sense of psallopiano music being like fractals or snowflakes: unique and complex. More chaos theory.

You will never hear this again. No one will ever hear this again. Look what you can afford.

Louisa said once: it is strange to think that one person could make a sound with so much in it.

For all that he's a lazy brat, Will does have great reserves of independent thought and compassion. I think he was well-disposed towards the eyai even before he found out that Anna was one, but he probably wouldn't have struck up such a friendship with Louisa if it weren't for his existing relationship with Anna. But this shouldn't be clear, at this point in the story. And it doesn't even count as a clue, really, it's just a sort of well-buried hint.

This is living in a lighthouse: you reach out and save people, bring them comfort, guide them home, but it is the light which does the guiding and in the end you are nothing to them but the pedestal from which it is cast; in the end you are always alone. This isn't a hobby and it's barely a living; you are the highest paid employee of the Gallows and you can only just afford to avoid a second job, to sleep through the dawn and then while away the afternoons at Anna's shop. You've been told that only the mad and the desperate can become psallopianists. You've been told that only angels could produce the sounds that you do, and this by people who have money enough to turn their thoughts to God, in the confidence of no earthly authority higher than themselves. One landowner to another.

For yourself you can only liken it to lighthouse-keeping, to chess and to blood loss, and to the way butter seems to pass directly from the solid state to the vaporous when you drop it into a pan that has been heated too long. No time to listen. No time to think or to melt.

Lands you have never been to fall off your tongue and are snatched up by the strings.


time is a wave, you murmur in my ear,
upon the crest of which we soar; this sound
so soft and threatening, these drums we hear
are just the water's fingers on the ground

Casting pictures! I cast James McAvoy as Will pretty much immediately, because this picture -- it's a cap I took from Children of Dune, which is apt considering that Will has quite a lot of Leto's careless charm and brattiness -- is just perfect, and lends itself well to the story. It took me quite a while longer to dig through my picture folders and settle on Scarlett Johannson as Anna, but this photo of her had exactly the right mixture of mystery and beauty. Anna was designed; she doesn't look endearingly flawed, she looks like someone took great care with her. If you've formed different images of them in your head, you're welcome to ignore these, but seeing as how I didn't put in a single word of description of Will (except for the fact that he has long fingers) I wanted to convey my own mental images somehow.

One year and a handful of dust ago: London, with drab familiar determination, is soaking its inhabitants with a rain that seems to fly in every possible direction, and you duck into a shop to escape it without so much as looking at the window display. Weapons or secondhand clothes, you're prepared to wager; there's precious little else in this corner of the city, at least when it comes to the legal forms of trade.

I knew that the backstory HAD to be a flashback, once I'd set the scene and introduced the characters. I considered changing the tenses of this section, but decided against it; I have greater faith in the intelligence of my readers than that.

The mess is a shock, but a lesser shock than the sudden appearance of a tall blonde girl amidst it, wiping her hands on an apron.

"I'm not looking for anything in particular," you say before she can speak. "Just avoiding the rain, if that's all right."

"Do you imagine that many people enter this shop looking for anything in particular?" She smiles and it's decorous but edged with challenge. "Look around anyway, if you like."

It takes a while for you to make your way to the display case because you cannot stop picking things up and putting them down, strange pieces of nonsense in unfamiliar colours, notebooks with only a few sentences entered:

there seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences

This is a quote from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park; I wanted a nod to Austen in there somewhere.

with the turning clock

Part of the eyai-rhyme which will show up later, obviously, but for now just an echo of the sonnet's clock-theme.

en sa beauté gît ma mort et ma vie

That's a bit from a poem by the French poet Maurice Scève. The translation shows up later in the story, and I'll talk about it then, but I liked this for the fact that it had 'life' and 'death' in it, just as the eyai-rhyme does. And it's a love poem, of course.

The display case is notable for the fact that its contents are more intact than anything else in the shop, and more bizarre.

"This one." You pick it up and turn it in your agile octave-spanning hands. "It's a barometer, isn't it?"

"Yes." Her smile is abrupt and admiring. "That's exactly what it is. Would you believe, I've had that on the shelf for almost six months now and not one other person has been able to work that out?"

"Where did you find it?"

"I made it." Her hands have clenched around the fabric of the apron; she releases it slowly. "I make things; it's what I do. My name is Anna Marsh," tacked onto the end with an air that could be awkward on many girls, but merely comes across as absent-minded.

I realise that there isn't a whole lot of indication in this story that Anna is as crazy about Will as he is about her, but...she really, really is. And this is where it starts. Because he named her gadget and he's very cute and now she's feeling all self-aware.

"William Pennsworth." You bow and replace the barometer on the shelf.

"And what is your occupation, Mr Pennsworth? Or is it too rude of me to ask?"

"Not at all. I play the psallopiano."

"And what's that like?"

You focus your gaze on the challenge lingering at the corner of her mouth and you tell her what you've never told anyone before, which is that playing the psallopiano is like losing blood slowly. To play with the skill that the instrument deserves you must throw yourself against the sharpness of the notes and let them pull the life from you, bleach and warp the fabric of your limbs, but like a strange elastic your body remembers its own shape and returns to it at the end.

The reason he's never told anyone before is because he doesn't have a lot of friends. He works in the evening in a place populated by eyai and pipe, and then sleeps most of the morning, so he doesn't have the best opportunity for a social life. But he loves his job far too much to quit, even though it's kind of insane and difficult. I think Will is one of the most artistic of all the various artists I've written, even though it's hard to tell this about him because he's so reserved in daily life.

Anna does not laugh at this, nor does she look as though she is pretending to understand; she simply nods and offers to make you a cup of tea, and you step into the workroom for the first time. You discover that Anna never knows what her creations do, what purpose they serve; she only knows when they are complete, and she leaves the recognition to the people who buy them. You discover that she cannot paint and cannot dance and that she has no personal philosophy beyond the reversal of entropy, because she considers that to be enough for anyone to be getting on with in the space of their lifespan.

Instant friends! <3 Anna can sing a little, but she was created for...well, probably the same occupation as Louisa, but with the mysterious craft ability as well; as I said, I don't know anything about her old owner, but it's probably an interesting story.

At length: "The rain has stopped, Mr Pennsworth" she says.


"You've been in here for quite some time."


Like ink blushing through paper the challenge takes over her whole mouth, then her cheekbones, then the arch of her eyebrows. "Have you taken a liking to anything in particular?"

"See anything you like?" Oh, Anna, you little flirt.

"I'll return tomorrow," you say, "and let you know then."

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Man, that is the laziest way of communicating the fact that Time Passes, but whatever. It's Shakespeare.

The barometer hangs upon the wall of your tiny boarder's room. You dust down the brass instruments and the broken mirrors in the shop, and sell handfuls of faded ribbons to bored giggling girls. Anna winds her arms around your neck and tells you that every girl holds a secret as vast as anything a man can imagine, as wide as the sea, and then she tells you hers. Anna works and you read aloud to her from half-books, quarter-books, books missing their covers and most of their pages. Small scraps of narrative that are all the more compelling for the fact that they exist in isolation. Anna melts wax into the cracks of glass and flicks glances at you, drawing you into discussion of a character's failings and admirable qualities.

Will lives somewhere pretty crappy. He doesn't do anything there except sleep.

And yes: Anna has a huge secret, and she tells it to him. Clue, uh, #6? I imagine it does take Will a little while to be entirely reconciled to the idea, but that is the point of little word-montages like the above. To gloss over things!

"I am not certain that any real person could be so noble in the face of ruination," you say between paragraphs.

They're totally reading Austen :D

Anna says, "What is a real person?"

CLUE #7.

She says, "Plausibility is only required in romances by those who have never been in love themselves, because they want to be convinced of love's existence. And for that to occur they must first be convinced that every other aspect of the story could exist; they make the mistake of assuming that no such essential truth can be proven without the system from which the hypothesis arises being proven first."

Hahahaha oh man, I am such a hypocrite. And hey, look, maths!

"And those that have been in love?"

"We are convinced already," and she smiles, and this is how you learn that she loves you. That you are surprised by the fact is, in itself, a surprise. But you make a living divorcing the actions of your left hand from the actions of the right, from your feet, from your voice, and perhaps it was inevitable that your mind should have clung to the status quo while your heart fell deeper and deeper and deeper in love.

Sort-of-not-really another clue, of the classic CAN THE CYLON FEEL LOVE?? variety. Will didn't know the answer until he believed in Anna's love for him.

You give her a set of tiny jeweller's saws; she gives you a golden key and a chain.

The rest of this scene is an enormous, gaudy clue. Clue clue clue.

"And where did you find this one, Anna?" You catch her forearms as she pulls back from hanging the chain around your neck, tug very gently and she steps forward into your embrace with a teasing smile.

What he's actually teasing her with is 'why do you possess your own turnkey?' Even though he knows the answer. He's a bit floored by the gesture, so he's making jokes.

"You must allow me some new secrets, surely, now that you know all of my previous ones."

"Is it the key to your heart?" you tease her in return.

This was kind of blatant misdirection, but...again, Will's trying to keep the tone light. To reinforce that he does think of her as a whole person in her own right.

"Surely, William, you are above such cheap sentimentality." Her eyes are wide, but then she relents. "You may think of it that way if you wish."

"Does it mean a promise?" Promises are the fashion. Though to what extent Anna will adhere to fashion has never been easy to predict.

"I could not bind you to anything," she says, and now her eyes are in shadow. "It means I trust you."

That's an admission of the fact that the eyai have, essentially, no power in society. That Anna has seized her independence is amazing; that she would ever try to exert power or ownership in her own right goes against both her personal principles and the way she was made. And gifting her turnkey is a HUGE trust statement, because Will now has the power to deadlock her; to, in effect, kill her. It's a statement that says: I trust that you will keep coming back, and that you will always wind me up again when I need it. But I don't think she needs it often; she's a pretty special model.

Love: the involuntary suspension of disbelief. The essential truth.

Callback to the discussion about the books, and the hypothesis metaphor.

and yet the sound is painful, I believe,
and in my dreams, all clicking ticker-tocks
it says: but drop your guard and I will leave
this finite dance in cogs and wheels and clocks

Emma mentioned that it was in this part of the sonnet that she realised that something was actually going to happen in the story. Which wasn't entirely deliberate on my part, but pleases me immensely.

From the discarded symbols of centuries and societies, Anna plays God and creates the universe anew every morning in the palm of her hand. Sometimes she sings to herself, and one day you join in.

Callback to the thing about the cartouche. And the classic trope about humans playing God, creating life, etc. and whether their own creations would then feel the desire to create.

"Shouldn't you save your voice?"

"I'm only playing half the usual time tonight. Marie has engaged a stage magician of some kind."

"If you're certain," and she shrugs, so you indulge in the rare sensation of singing with words, of casting out your voice and allowing it to stand alone; no notes underneath and no strings above, only --

"Can you hear that?" Anna asks, just as you do begin to hear it. She sets down her tools and stands up, excited. "Keep singing."

You drop the words altogether and refine the note without thinking, questing, moving gently up and down a semitone at a time, until the hint of a noise from the shop becomes more than a hint.

This section was partly inspired by the Anne McCaffrey books about the crystal singers, who have to sing a note of perfect pitch in order to safely mine the crystals used as a fuel source.

"Psallostrings in my shop. Who would have thought it?" Anna laughs and spins around the room, her arms outstretched, listening. "Louder, Will."

There's enough junk of indiscriminate nature in her shop that this is not at ALL implausible.

As loud and as long as you dare, and people are beginning to halt in the street outside, because even a single set of psallostrings will carry your voice through glass as though there is nothing there at all. When you drop the note Anna lowers her arms with a long sigh.

Will is a showoff. Really.

"Time for you to leave?"

"Yes." Fetching your coat and gloves. "Aren't you going to try and find the strings?"

"No," she says. "It's more enjoyable this way. We'll save them for special occasions."

This was actually a very important line for me because it's something that I would never, ever say. I started writing this scene with Anna following the sound in the shop in an effort to locate the strings, but all she wanted to do was spin and enjoy the noise.

Me: But...but...find!
Her: Why?
Her: Why?
Me: *gives up*

I'm a person who has to know. Anna isn't. That I am capable of writing such profound differences is always a relief to me.

"You could create something else --" but she has stepped close and laid her fingers across your lips.

"Does it make music?" she asks mockingly, and leans in, close enough to kiss you. "It most certainly does."

She doesn't need to create anything that makes music! She has Will! And I was surprised by the fact that the injoke slipped in here, but pleased.

You laugh. "You're in an odd mood this evening."

"Something's going to happen soon," Anna says. "Don't ask me how I know. I just know."

I doubt there's any sort of eyai-wavelength or Cylon mainframe or whatever the hell, but Anna can sense...something. I refuse to use the word 'inscrutable' again. I need more Anna-adjectives.

You kiss her; you don't ask her how she knows, or even what kind of something, you kiss her and she slides her cool fingers inside your gloves, the black pair that might have looked like velvet three winters ago but have long since been rubbed thin. Tomorrow you will be turning them inside out and shaking gold dust from the fingertips, but today you close your eyes and listen to Anna's wicked voice as she opens her mouth against your lips and recites the Braille of your palm.

"I'll be late," you tell her. "Anna."

"Keep your eyes open, Will," she says finally, releasing you.

Early shift tonight, so you are just in time to be sucked into the after-work crowds, and as you stand adjusting your pocketwatch the people of London part and reform around you like rain around cobbles, unflinching in their noisy human torrent. Your eyes are open but nothing seems out of the ordinary. Indeed, everything about the night is familiar until you leave your performer's stool early to find one at the bar from which you can watch the magic show. David slips you a glass of brandy and you can bathe in the lights, pretend you're just another pipe gentleman, begin to get casually intoxicated -- so much so that you do not notice when the lights are dimmed, do not notice anything until the cold sound of chimes lifts your head and directs your attention to the stage.

True story: when I am stuck in a story (and I was incredibly stuck on this scene, you have no idea) I can either get myself drunk (as I did when writing the psallopiano scene) or get my character drunk. They have the exact same effect; I just have to decide which would hurt the story more. Luckily Will was at the bar anyway, and a slight blur in his narrative suited the otherwordly tone I wanted to create.

The magician's attire is affectedly Eastern, draped and rich like treacle poured from a spoon. His assistant could be eyai, could just be painted that way, but where his costume bespeaks dry sun, hers takes the same style and pulls it sharp and gasping from a near-frozen river. Silver dust that sends a familiar shiver through you; tented cradles of white fabric; her eyelashes frosted and lengthened. You should not have drunk so fast. Your gaze will not move as smoothly as you would like, but drags sluggish and unwillingly intimate from the long chain spanning her wrists to the first of the illusions, which is the way her dusted limbs seem to fade through each other. Freeze the desert and shatter it against its own rocks and from the pieces you could -- Anna could -- create this girl.

That last sentence? I adore it. I wanted to hug it to my chest when it sprang into my head, as anatomically bizarre as that sounds.

The act is mage and slave, built around the intricate hand motions that are someone's idea of Eastern magic, easy and beautiful misdirection leading into something that is more dance than true illusion. The eyai becomes a puppet, swaying about the stage under the magician's hands, his control growing tighter and tighter; you have to admit that it's well done, if a little too political for your tastes. You can appreciate the pacing, the ritardando, the eyai's hesitations and lethargy as she winds down under the audience's eyes and is finally a cold slumped figure on a chair.

Hesitations and lethargy = a repeat of the earlier clue.

Silence -- the mage makes a great show of holding her turnkey in the lock, considering whether to deadlock her for the night or to give an encore -- the audience calls for the latter but he shakes his head and begins to walk off the stage.


The eyai lifts her head. For a moment the room recedes leaving only the damp glass in your hand and her open reproachful eyes staring directly into yours, and the next gulp of brandy is less of a warm glow and more a trickle of melting ice down your throat. But the act continues -- the eyai was merely pretending to be wound-down, the eyai is fluttering her hands in mimicry, enchanting her chains so that they fall to the floor.

That moment -- silence, and then the eyai lifting her head -- is the kind of moment which in real life creates a shock. Indrawn breath. I wasn't sure if I could convey that with words, but I had to try. And this eyai is completely aware of her situation, both acted and actual, and she is completely aware that she only has to put up with it for a few more hours. And all of that resentment, hope, hatred -- all of that is being fired at Will through the silver paint around her eyes. This is the turning point of the whole story.


It really is a beautiful act. In this moment you have no honest idea in which direction the story will be taken. But the climax comes quickly: a thwarted escape, a brief sexualised struggle, and the mage closes his fingers around the turnkey.

This was one of those scenes that I could see clearly in the torchlight, but didn't want to explore in great detail. I wanted it to be a chance for the imaginations of the reader to do the dirty work: imagine the most discomforting, sexist, blatant display of aesthetic sexual violence that you can, and you'll be in exactly the right frame of mind.

There is a rhyme for children:

Life comes with the turning clock
Counter brings the dead and lock

That's a rather simple pun on 'deadlock', in which the word gains a more sinister meaning, but also in which the idea of an eyai's death is rendered a technicality. A cheap mechanic, indeed. And thus palatable, especially when fed to children as part of their socialisation.

And so the key turns counterclockwise -- the eyai falls to the floor in the sudden and complete submission of temporary death -- applause, and the act is finished. From where you sit you can see the restlessness of the room at large, the pairs and pairs of eyes following the Gallows' own eyai with redoubled intensity, the little redhaired one called Emily being pulled into one of the bedrooms by a client. These kinds of violent fictions always breed more arousal; Marie catches the magician's eye and inclines her head, well satisfied. Good for business.

'Submission' is the key word there. (Heheh. Key.) That act was pretty much power-porn. See also: Marie and her business genius.

"It's going to be a busy night." Louisa's voice echoes your thoughts; she is fetching drinks from the bar, and she lingers near your stool.

"What did you think of the show?"

"I didn't care for the ending." She stops and maybe there's guilt on her face and maybe it's the light, and maybe she's winding down. But it's too early in the night for that to be likely. "Will," she says then, and there's a new note in her voice. "You've always been very kind to me, you know. Much kinder than you have to be."

There's the second slip of the evening: the first was the magician's eyai allowing her knowledge to show on her face. But this is where Will has his side chosen for him, ironically, by someone who has no idea that his girlfriend is eyai and that he'd have been on her side by default anyhow.

You feel pinned to the thick carpet, pinned by her green gaze and the way her fingertip disappears absently inside the lock on her shoulder, a gesture neither studied nor attractive. "I don't --"

That gesture is also important -- neither studied nor attractive, something she's doing of her own volition and not as part of her professional presentation. And also a quick demonstration that if she held her own key, she could wind herself up.

"That's why," she starts, and then holds out a small piece of paper with her free hand. You take it and she turns back to the bar. "Don't waste time," she says as the tray slides into her waiting grasp. "It's not yours to waste."

That line belongs more to the sonnet than to the story itself; it fits well enough as a warning that the eyai are seizing their own lives back, but it's also...okay, it's a brief flash of true transhumanism, the idea of a created intelligence catching a glimpse of a higher pattern/narrative. This is the role that Leoben plays in Eleusis (and, I think, in BSG itself sometimes) and it's got a lot to do with the theory of limitations upon consistent and complete systems of both mathematics (remember? the maths reference?) and artificial intelligence. I won't try to explain it here, because it took me almost all of Godel, Escher, Bach to properly grasp the concept, but it's important. Transhumanism means reaching higher than the limits of the system which dictates your ability. So Anna saying that she knows something will happen, and Louisa using terminology belonging to the higher structure of her own narrative...that's what shows you that the eyai are ready to break free.

It's such an odd thing to say that you watch her for almost a minute as she sets the drinks on a table and slides onto the lap of a man with wide pale hands, kisses his neck, blows on his dice. Finally you go to sit down upon the stairs leading up to the psallopiano and uncrumple the paper.

It reads, automata insurrecta, in a thin but certain script.

Yes, yes, more Latin geekery.

Every girl holds a secret as wide as the sea.

I needed that parallel. It took me a while to realise it; this section orginally ended with the line above this one. But the parallel kind of clangs into place like a deathknoll, like Will's realisation.

one whispered winter day the clock's hands will
be silent, cold, and absolutely still

That eye picture is, of course, representative of the magician's eyai. It was also the logo design for a production of As You Like It that the Bell Shakespeare company put on a few years ago, and it's been sitting in my picture folders gathering virtual dust. I'm glad it had the chance to be used here.

One of your hands tight around Anna's and the other reaching out to catch the metal post; pivot and curve, Anna smiling as she traces out the extension of your arc like the pencil held in a compass. At the edge of London where the city bleeds into the not-city, the wind strokes you sober with its cold merciless hands and you are facing -- where?

Two things: Will sobers up, very necessary for him not to be useless, and also his uncertainty as to their next step.

"Where?" Anna asks.

"We could still remain here," you say, struggling with the words, "if you wished it. I expect Louisa is still at the Gallows. We could --"

Will wants to run like hell, but he acknowledges that Anna may want to stick with the other eyai and take part in the revolution. It's more a token gesture than anything else, but it takes a lot of courage to voice it.

She is shaking her head, her cheeks tinged a metallic pink by the night air and the streetlamps. "Too risky. We'll take our chances outside the city, at least until the first stages are over."

"Escaping the entropy?"

"Yes," she admits. "Our only hope for renewal is to return when something remains with which to build."

Anna is not a revolutionary either. She has a surprising lack of any feelings of eyai solidarity: as long as she's safe and Will is safe, she is content (I think Cylon!Kara and Cylon!Lee had a conversation about this in Those Journeymen Divine, about Sharon and Helo and the distinction between choosing allegiance to a side and allegiance to a person. Anna and Will are -- sorry, sorry -- more of a solipsism a deux (thank you, John Grath) than real, participating members of this universe. And while she recognises the necessity of such an uprising, she has a personal distaste for the chaos which will follow. As she says, she'll do what she does best and create something new out of the pieces.

Fragments of chaos, no matter which turn the story takes. Trusting to the Tube for much longer: too risky, trying to bribe your way up into the Pipe: perhaps even riskier. So you walk.

"Perhaps we have been reading the wrong types of books," Anna says after some time. "I don't quite know what to expect from a revolution."

"Romance, perhaps. Eventually." You smile. "But not our kind."

"You don't know that. Maybe we would take very well to implausible situations." A sound like a hiccup when she stops speaking, and you notice that Anna's pace has slowed, that each step takes more effort than the one before.

From here onwards the text is shouting clue! clue! clue! EYAI!

"Are you going to be all right?"

"I've never had to be this energetic before." She lifts her skirts higher with her free hand. "But I'll manage; don't worry about me."

Onwards. Anna's hair spins out magic from the moonlight, her face is strained but set in determination, and you love her so much that it stops you in your tracks.

You say, "Rest a moment."

You say, "In her beauty resides my death and my life."

Okay. I said I'd talk about the translation of 'en sa beauté gît ma mort et ma vie'. According to Ji, who knows all, the verb 'gésir' is only used on tombstones, as we would use 'here lies so-and-so'. So 'reside' is not a very good translation, but there IS no real word in English that would capture the context correctly, and I like the rhythm, so I left it. I think it's an even better line of poetry when you are aware of this proper meaning, though, so it's worth mentioning.

Anna's lips are trembling but she laughs. "What was that, Will?"

"Nothing. Listen." Somewhere not very far away, but far enough, the noise of human disaster and instinctive escape. The pipe and tube united towards a common goal for once, society shaking in the way that it always must when its lowest strata become unstable, having never learnt that the most essential truths can stand alone.

The last clause of that sentence tacked itself on before I had time to think about how awesome it was. Because love stands alone as an essential truth and some statements are self-proving, and no society can ever reach the same eternal existence if it builds itself upon oppression. Blah blah downfall of the Roman Empire due to over-reliance upon slave labour, which I believe I learned from...Veronica Mars? Shame, shame.

Anna keeps hold of your hand. "The world dissolves," she says, "the world…" and her voice is growing faint.

You reach for the key around your neck.

And...yes. The revelation. I am not a huge fan of, well, the cheap mechanics of melodrama, but this twist needed to come at the end and I think I pulled it off. But my fingers are tightly crossed.

The final picture is the clock, of course, because this is the moment when the clock's hands stop, as the sonnet dictates. Time has escaped its confines. Entropy must ensue.

Questions? Comments? Want to write your own story set in this universe? Fire away!
Tags: eyaiverse, writing: commentary

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  • a yuletide fable

    "Oh, what a nice assignment," I said. "This should be a fairly short fic," I said. "Maybe around 3000-4000 words," I said. ~ You can probably…

  • why am I even awake

    Dear new Google Reader layout: GO DIE IN A FIRE, Jesus Christ, I am operating on a very small EeePC here and I desperately need the ability to…

  • a brief list

    1) New post at Tightrope Waltzing: Flowers for Algernon. 2) Whoever gifted me with LJ time & icons: thank you so much. Today has been up and down…