The slashes in his wrists are still vivid and bone-deep. He bled out long ago, or so it seems; naked in his loft with an empty bottle of single malt and the Plough-Jags haunting the speaker-horn of his phonograph....
Willem descends the twisting stone alleys of Mullish Town slowly and with profound effort, carrying the weight of the World in a mandolin case of worn brown leather and a carpet bag slung over his shoulder. The Sun has only now begun to rise; rusty squawks of spring-driven shorebirds call down from the winter sky, crabs of clockwork and brass scuttle from his path.
...his life pulsing away in silent rhythm with notes culled reverently from his mandolin.
A cannery at the water’s edge looms before him, the hinges of its great iron doors etched in frost. At the quay a ketch is outfitted for personal use, gear-and-flywheel riggings made ready for departure, “The Mighty Steam Kings” painted in bold industrial script across the stern. (A barbed reminder, that; the Gods of Time and Engines are nothing if not ironic in their manipulation of possibilities.) Dockers and road-hands hustle about, most of them indentured from the poorer Aspects of Her Eternal Majesty’s Aetheric Possessions.
Willem looks up the impossibly tall stoop to the cannery doors and feels every prayer and harmony he’d ever devised collapse under the weight of the mandolin. The scene is etched in his memory and repeats again and again, never resolved, like a phonographic needle trapped in a scratch. The “difference boy”, as he was known by very few, whose musical gifts and equations transcended his mortal heritage and drew upon the apotheosis itself; the transformation of flesh and spirit to mechanized immortality. Harmony elevated from numbers: the binary form of Lord Babbage’s numbered punch cards (the very precursor to Mechanical Thought) transformed into an opus of diatonic purity. Each note a fragment of the Pattern-That-Is, infinitely becoming...
All of this has been conjured for his benefit, of course, to show him yet again what he has been denied. The Lords-Mechanical do not perceive Creation as do mortal Men; even those mortals who have passed beyond the veil. There is neither a future nor past, just the never-ending Now (here in this nexus through which all potential outcomes flow), and Willem is swept along like flotsam in a Great Ship’s wake. He stops, the cold of northern climes stabbing through the illusory hobnails of his shoes.
Dying’s a bitch, mate. I don’t recommend her company.
“Oy, Wills. You coming up or not?”
Willem peers through icy fog that’s rolled in from the sea. Hugo sits at the top of the stoop, plucking arbitrary notes on the cittern balanced on his motorized thigh. A pipe of gnarled briarwood dangles from the side of his mouth.
Willem stares. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” he says, taking in the incongruity of the moment. Indeed, Hugo has never been present at this juncture in the iteration, not in any of its endless repetitions. Yet another variation, this, on the theme of their passing.
Hugo shrugs, rich amber light from streetlamps still lit glinting off the industrial lenses affixed to where his eyes had once been. The paving beneath the stoop is littered with an empty tin and ash from Hugo’s customary blend. He’s been there a long while. “Damnedest thing, innit? Then again, mate, you aren’t supposed to be here either.”
He bled out long ago, or so it seems....
Willem sets his bundles down, and the walkway threatens to crumble under the overpowering weight. “I have to do this, Hugo.”
“Let her go, Wills. Let all of it go.” Hugo waves a hand at the village that’s crowded round its small harbor, ancient stone houses stacked vertically up the slopes out of centuries-old necessity. In truth, Mull and the isles of Innes Gall are not islands in the optimal sense at all so much as rocks and the jagged peaks of mountains thrusting high above the waters of the West Scotian Sea. Poor in resources save for whale oil and cod, the Galls and every soul who inhabited them had all but been forgotten by the Machines of the Queen’s Instrumentality when they remade Creation in Her Most Perfect Image. “You belong somewhere else.”
...in the company of equally-gifted players, on a tour that was set to depart for Whitehall in scarcely a fortnight.
“I can’t leave her.”
“Bullshite. She left you.”
“Callie is dead, Hugo. The Jags are dead. Everyone aboard that godforsaken wreck is dead. I should have been there.”
“Cor, spare me the insufferable monotony of your perpetual self-flagellation. I’ll surely weep.” Hugo sets his instrument down and hops off the stoop, soot-blackened ice crunching beneath his motorized underpinnings (legs and eyes having been lost to a Luddite’s bomb in Whitehall, outside the Cathedral of Pistons). “Kit held you back, Willem. It was yourself who bound the lot of us together, not him.”
“The structure was more important than me,” Willem says. “Melodic order was more important than me. Perfection was more important. And Callie....” His voice diminishes, allowing Hugo to finish the thread.
“...and Callie was more important than everything.”
I know.... I’ve always known.
The Plough-Jags had been Kit’s passion from the beginning, holding court upon the stage, as was his want, with a mechanized keyboard that belched sparks and shattered vacuum tubes more often than it produced a coherent tune. Hugo maintaining rhythm on the cittern, the diminutive automaton Lug on steam-fiddle, Calandre Leigh Goff on tambour and the bodhran. “Callie from Gallie” she would playfully say, and they’d smile every time.
But it was Willem alone on his grandfather’s mandolin (handcrafted in the Before Time, or so had been claimed) who raised the modest quintet to a higher level of complexity with his intricate chordal structures and mathematical progressions. Yet there he remained, unnoticed, unseen, from one smoke-filled dance hall and tavern to the next, subtly informing his harmonies with the fundamental equations of the Lords-Mechanical (the unspoken language of the Gods of Time and Engines) while everyone’s eyes were on everyone else but him.
...swept along like flotsam in a Great Ship’s wake.
Until a break one eve at the Wind-Up Lass, when members of the Steam Kings approached Willem with an invitation worthy of his talents: join them—and at long last his rightful place in the company of equally gifted players—as they readied for their seasonal tour to Whitehall, then on through the Great Mirror to perform in the very Aspects themselves.
Chaotic memories vie for dominance now, flickering as if from a kinetoscope: a revel on Gondalsay that Kit insisted the Plough-Jags attend, despite a worrisome squall forming over the Minch; Willem bowing out in secret to meet with his new fellows; sirens and steam-bells from the lighthouse on Storn; a boat torn to splinters in the perilous Na Torrain, the Rocks of Murmuring Thunder.
I should have been there....
“I should have been there,” Willem says again, the cobbles threatening to rush up and smite him in the face. “I owed every one of you the truth. Kit above all.”
“No, he was a right bloody prig half the time, but he took us in when no one else would. I was always grateful for that.”
“So was she.”
Hugo’s meaning stings, and Willem’s eyes have already brimmed full with tears.
“Go to Hell.”
“She was pleasuring him when she died, Wills. You know that’s true.”
“Go to Hell!”
“Lug and I in the pilot-house arguing the merits of Instrumental Enlightenment, Callie below deck with Kit and no desire to be disturbed. The squall we’d ignored blows in from the east. The boat lists crosswise as the first of three rogues is upon us. Before its waters can drain away the second wave hits. We break deep—the weight of the tide is go great—and the third slams what’s left of us into the Rocks. It’s over in an instant.” Hugo turns and gazes over the post-Instrumental gloom round about them and the malevolent tides beyond, then sparks his pipe aflame again. “Dying’s a bitch, mate. I don’t recommend her company.”
And then Hugo (a ghost, a clockwork revenant, an arbiter from the Lords-Mechanical; who can honestly say in this place neither here nor there?) looks back at Willem with profound understanding.
“I’m not sharing anything you don’t already know.”
Willem nods in tiny fits and starts, his eyes tightly shut, and tries to breathe. The winter air tastes like coffin nails and rust.
“I know.... I’ve always known.” He wipes his nose on his coat sleeve. Something is different this time, he senses with unwarranted certainty, or at the very least has the potential of becoming so. Not another variation on the same tired theme but something significant; something profound. He can almost feel the turning of Creation on its great herculean gears.
“So why am I here?” asks Hugo. “This is your grand bloody epiphany, not mine.”
“I never said goodbye,” Willem answers, accepting the truth at long last even as his tears continue to fall. “Not to you, not to her. I never told her anything.” He watches the morning Sun continue its climb up the great arc of its rails. “I don’t know, perhaps the life I needed to make peace with the most was my own.”
Something is different....
The iterations of his death resound about him like the echoes of a suspended chord. All seems as it was and should continue to be, here in the moving present Men perceive as Time: the all-consuming anguish, a scullery knife, bleeding out alone with the final notes from his mandolin. An evening prayer and offering, the last of both, sung from the “difference boy” to Gods whom he desperately needed to save him from drowning in the black depths of regret.
But Time is ruled by probabilities, and the Gods delight in games of chance.
Probabilities. He observes them all—the infinite from every point in Space, the eternal from every point in Time—the echo of the Self occupying every possible outcome at once.
And in every one, Willem kills himself for himself; for his guilt, for his anger, for his self-pity and remorse...
...spare me the monotony of your perpetual self-flagellation.
He sees it now for the first time. Something is different, deep within the structure of possibilities. An iteration Willem has never anticipated. The entirety of potential outcomes hones to a single note of perfect clarity, sung from the “difference boy” to Gods whom he desperately needed to hear him. Not for his own sake, no. Not for immortality. Not for himself at all, Willem realizes, but for her.
I can offer my song for her.
And with that, the mighty gear-trains that govern the never-ending Now shift, the chord resolves, and a new Now stands in its place.
A resolution earned, at long last.
“You’re set upon this, then?” asks Hugo, his voice sounding as if from a great distance.
Willem nods, absently tugging his coat sleeves over the smooth unbroken flesh of his wrists. He can feel it, something new, here in this moment between downbeats where Time is not encouraged to pass. But hadn’t it always been thus? He can’t remember now; the isle of Mull and the rock-littered seas beyond its harbor are already starting to fade, dockside clamor muffled by the cold magicks of iron and stone. He nods again, turning his collar to the damp, and looks down upon his worn shoes. “I’ll miss you, Tin Man,” he says, embarrassment stealing unexpectedly into the intimacy of the moment.
I never said goodbye....
But Hugo is no longer there.
“Oy, Wills. You coming up or not?”
Willem peers through icy fog that’s rolled in from the sea. Callie stands at the top of the stoop, the blue-white light of electricks streaming through a mighty doorway finally open; the alchemic light of Heaven’s Great Engines. She smiles, regret and hope offered to him in newly mechanized eyes.
...and Callie was more important than everything.
“Aye,” he says, smiling as well, and he wipes the last of the tears from his face. “I’ll be right there.”
Willem picks up his mandolin case as if it weighs nothing at all.