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The Natural Philosopher and the Nonlinear Terms

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Second Law (thermodynamics) 1. The statement that entropy in an isolated system can only be held fixed or increased.

 

  

Piero Joplin tapped the old brass key to the hound pits on his cutting bench, and stopped when he caught himself doing it. 

There was no reason not to go. Piero had been waiting for this moment for months - years, if he were being honest. He hadn't been able to focus on anything after Admiral Havelock had come to him and asked, ever so casually, where Anton Sokolov spent most of his time. Of course Piero knew. And then Corvo had gone out and brought him back, snoring over the assassin's shoulder, and Havelock had put him in the old hound pit cage in the warehouse, like it was nothing, like they hadn't just kidnapped the most important object in Piero Joplin's personal universe. Then they had gone in there and talked to him! Just...talked! To him! Now he was sitting there like any other prisoner and everyone was simply going about their lives, as if he weren't just fifty meters away from Piero Joplin's workshop. Him! Anton Sokolov!

When Corvo had donned his mask and Samuel pushed off from the dock, Piero had counted the minutes until they returned. But after Havelock and Corvo had returned from the interrogation and Havelock had dropped the key to the pit cage on Piero's desk "so you can have your chat," he was gripped by a sudden cold. His limbs felt leaden. His thoughts spun in a useless tumble, like a flywheel disengaged from its parent mechanism. After so long waiting, the moment was finally here - and he found he couldn't do it.

Piero made excuses. Corvo had a party to attend tonight. That meant preparations. Piero cleaned the mask and pasted on a few gaudy bits to make it look more like an aristocrat's idea of frightening. He checked the crossbow; Corvo did well enough taking care of the weapons he knew, but the little pistol bow was Piero's own creation and the assassin could not be trusted to look after it properly. The spools needed oiling and he replaced the heavy coiled mainspring that drove the mechanism, just to be sure. Corvo had asked him for several more of the tranquilizer bolts and a few vials of remedy. Piero lingered over them, mixing chemicals up until the moment Corvo came to pick them up before he left, and at no point admitted that he was distracting himself.

And then Corvo left for his party, and Piero was alone with the brass key.

Evening slouched towards night as he walked across the riverfront yard. Waves slapped at the crumbling quay. Across the water the city was lighting up. A mere two decades ago it would have glowed with candlelight; now the streets crackled with the pale, steady radiance of electric arcs. Far, far out to sea he could discern the long straight line of lights running along the harbor breakwater, the great wall of dun-colored stone that had given the first town its name. The ruined buildings in the setting sun cast long blocks of shadow, carving out black pits in the shining surface of the river. He looked away; the image made him uneasy. Piero marched up the crumbling brick steps to the old warehouse that housed the kennels and the pit cage, stood before the door and took a deep breath. Straightened, unconsciously, the lapels of his ancient coat. Resettled his spectacles on his nose. 

Piero would be the first to admit that he had some difficulties conversing with human beings. He preferred to plan out his responses far in advance; otherwise his mouth outran his head and said things he would rather it didn't. And this particular scene, oh, he had turned this moment on the lathe of his mind for years, working out all the variations. How he and Sokolov would meet. What he would say first. How he would demonstrate the clear superiority of his own work and the mistake Sokolov had made in allowing him to be expelled from the Academy. Piero had mapped out all the ways the conversation could go, whether he would gloat or simply enjoy his triumph, quiet, magnanimous in victory. Running through those scenes in his mind drove him on through the dark times, comforted him when the world pressed down on him and everything he brewed turned to ash. And now this moment that was the sum of a thousand daydreams was about to happen, and he had imagined it so many times that it no longer seemed real.

He opened the door and stepped inside.

The pit cage covered most of the first floor of the building, a wide square with open bars reaching three times a man's height. Electric arc lights had been fixed to the rafters, spotlighting the arena below. Two long blue metal crates were fitted to openings on opposite corners where the hounds would have been released, back when the beasts had torn each other to pieces while the pub's customers roared. Now the cage held a narrow cot, a table, the remnants of a meal and a half-empty bottle. And Anton Sokolov, lying on the cot with his coarse green jacket thrown over his face.

The warehouse door clicked shut behind Piero. He stepped up to the bars and cleared his throat. Sokolov didn't move. He looked like he was sleeping. Piero wanted to be angry, triumphant, proud. Instead he felt light and hollow inside, moving as if he were underwater. He unlocked the cage with the brass key. The hinges squeaked as he entered. That, too, prompted no reaction from the natural philosopher stretched out on his cot, dead to the world. Piero walked to the edge of the little bed and stopped, feeling like a fool.

Anton Sokolov had become, in his dreams, a shadow and a menace. The last he had ever seen of the man was Sokolov in the black robes of the Head of the Academy, rejecting his appeal, and this was the image that had stayed with him: Sokolov standing above him all in black, dismissing him. At the Academy Sokolov had occupied a level so far above Piero it had made his head spin, and what times he had seen the man had been brief and from a distance. Until that one terrible day.

Now he was here, the man and not the image, and he looked - like a man, one who had been dragged from his home and forced to stay in an old pit cage for a day and a night. Sokolov was wearing a gentleman's dress shirt and a waistcoast, but they were of rough, durable cloth, and his trousers were spotted with food and chemical stains both old and new. He was breathing - Piero could see the rise and fall of his chest - but he gave no other sign of life.

"Um," he said, and despaired at the waver in his voice. "I am Piero Joplin, and - I am a natural philosopher and I - want to talk to you." The words echoed in the high rafters and died away into silence. He felt like even more of an idiot, like the Void ought to open up and swallow him right then.

Then a voice spoke from under the coat. "What. Did you put. In those stinking darts," Sokolov grated out.

Piero blinked. This had not been in any of his scripts. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said while his mind spun.

"The darts, man. Those stinking forsaken darts that idiot Attano stuck me with," rasped out Sokolov. Piero had only heard him speak a handful of times, but he was sure the man didn't normally sound like he had swallowed gravel. "Our erstwhile Lord Protector is handy with a blade, but I doubt he is familiar with the chemical arts. So I have inferred, because I am a genius, that whatever wretched sedative they were loaded with is your doing, and I would like to know what in the Void it was. Because I can assure you that, listed among its many properties, ought to be 'does not interact well with King Street Brandy.'"

Piero stared at him. It was a good thing Sokolov's head was still buried in his coat in an attempt to escape the arc lamps that blazed down over the arena. A distant corner of his mind fit together the pieces and pointed out that, yes, the bottle on the little table was indeed the measure of King Street Brandy Corvo had bought off him earlier, and the level was a quarter of the way down the glass. The rest of him was trying to play catch-up with a reality that had already gone far off the rails.

"I am - my name is Piero Joplin," he began again, trying to get things back on track.

"Yes, you already said that," interrupted Sokolov. "If you're not going to be helpful, you can piss off."

"I - don't know you know who I am?" He was breathing fast now. He felt lightheaded.

"Should I?" said Sokolov. "What have you ever built?"

"I designed a--" but he had never built that "and I perfected the method of--" but had he ever told anyone? "and I developed-- I am Piero Joplin, and you had me expelled from the Academy!" he shouted. Sokolov flinched involuntarily at the noise. Piero shut his mouth, astonished at himself.

"Did I?" said Sokolov when the echoes had stopped.

"Yes!"

"Sounds about right. Go away now." And Sokolov turned over to face the other side of the cage, wrapping the thick cloth tighter over his head. 

Piero stood over the cot, mouth open. His mind was full of a rushing noise, a sonic blank, like the ocean roaring on the other side of a seawall. He had no idea what to do. He was not equipped to handle this situation. Some automatic survival routine turned him around and marched him out of the arena and out across the ruined dock, as the sea breeze whipped up and the stars fought through the pall of oilsmoke that wrapped Dunwall in its shroud.

Corvo went to a party. Corvo came back. The crossbow springs needed adjusting afterwards. He bent to the familiar motions. Havelock's mood brightened. Callista asked for more watercolor paints for Emily. Pendleton asked for something to make him sleep through the night. He tried to read a book, but the only new one he had was the Academy history of the Pittman Expedition to Pandyssia, and everyone knew Sokolov had ghostwritten it. Cecelia brought him a sandwich; he ate. What have you ever built? He ought to make one of Sokolov's own designs. That was what he should do. Piero would build it and then he would go and invite - invite - Sokolov over to his workshop, and there would be one of the man's own creations, but better. He began to sketch. He sent messenger sparrows from the loft window arranging meetings for parts, materials, chemicals and powders, sent Cecelia out with coins concealed in her boots to fetch them back. He sat down on the narrow bed in his loft and drank a measure of the dull green tonic he kept next to it. He slept. He did not dream. He woke up. He went back to work.

He would build the arc pylon. That was it. Piero felt the rightness of that idea, like fitting a gear snug against its fellows. He would have liked to replicate the first invention, the one that had made Sokolov's name, but after due consideration he could see no way to fit a whaling ship inside the workshop. Perhaps later, when he was Royal Physician. When he had all the time and space and tools in the world.

The day dawned clear, but low clouds lurked on the southern horizon. Piero checked his weather notebook and calculated. In this month said clouds indicated a late rain three times out of five. He pulled the shutters down in the workshop accordingly. Corvo's mask needed looking over one last time. He replaced the bow's mainspring again. Samuel pushed off from the dock and pointed his little skiff's prow to Dunwall Tower. Piero sketched. Then he drew. Then he planned. He could see Havelock passing in front of the window every thirty seconds, pacing with military precision. 

Pendleton staggered in smelling of wine and asked him what were the most toxic substances he knew of. Piero had to think about that. He consulted a few of his older notebooks, where he had compiled various lists for easy reference. Liquid distillations of certain metals, the venom of Serkonan pit vipers, and a Tyvian poison made from a kind of mollusc, he informed Pendleton, so that the man would leave. Pendleton went away. He traced designs on metal and began to cut. The howl of the mill and the lathe filled the workshop. Sparks showered down on the floor. They sizzled in spots where traces of whale oil had soaked into the stone. The brass key gleamed on the table in his loft.

Evening fell. A brief rain swept over the riverfront, then passed off to the north. The street speaker up the way, on the other side of the quarantine wall, crackled to life, and the voice of Hiram Burrows boomed out across the city. Piero listened for a little while, then found a sheet of foolscap and scribbled "Pandyssia - rats."

Corvo came back.

It was done. The now-former Lord Regent was on his way to Coldridge Prison. The kingsparrow fluffing its oil-sheen feathers on the ridgepole of the Hound Pits had brought the message from Martin's man on the inside. All the lights in the pub were lit, the audiograph player hauled out of the pantry to fill the bar with music, even Emily woken up and brought down from her tower room to share in the festivities. Pendleton broke out the good vintage, or at least what good vintages he hadn't already drunk. The pylon was taking shape on the floor of the workshop. Piero regarded it in the golden light that spilled from the pub's windows and smiled. Then it faded. He listened to the noise coming from inside the pub, filtering out on the salt air, mixing with the tang of brine and fish and drifting out to sea.

Piero pulled down the wide shutter that covered the open wall of the workshop, locking it out of habit. He had had too many valuable components pilfered before, and it was always so hard to replace them. Starting tomorrow, he wouldn't have to worry about that ever again. He would have everything he needed, when he needed it, and no tedious questions to answer about why. It didn't matter what Anton Sokolov thought of him anymore; whether he remembered Piero, or had ever known his name. Everything was going to be different, starting tomorrow. He walked across the dark alley that separated his workshop from the pub, put his hand on the doorknob. And froze.

There it was again, that leaden weight composed with a paradoxical lightness, as though he might float away at any second. His stomach churned. His muscles were buzzing like he'd grabbed the wrong end of a wire. He clenched his jaw. Resettled the spectacles on the end of his nose. Tried not to be sick. Turned the knob and opened the door.

Inside the bar was hot and close. More people were packed into it tonight than it must have seen in years. Piero did not run, but he did think about it. Corvo, Havelock, and Martin were all standing in a knot, their faces flush with victory and drink. Pendleton was barely upright, already leaning against the bar. Emily sloshed away in a corner with the new watercolors, Callista sitting across from her with a little stack of papers. The roaring in his ears doubled when he looked at her. He glanced around hurriedly for something to drink.

"There ye are, my boy," said a gruff voice from behind him. Piero turned to see Samuel already holding out a mug half-full with dark beer. "I was wondering if we'd winkle ye out of your shop. Nobody ought to go thirsty on a night like this." The grizzled sailor had stationed himself behind the bar and had even managed to fix up one of the ancient taps.

"Thank you," he said, taking the mug and sipping cautiously. The beer was thin but tasty, as good as could be expected in a quarantined city.

"No trouble at all," said Samuel amiably. "Reckon this might be the last a lot of us see of each other, and it does a man good to say his farewells over a strong drink. I owe ye for taking a look at the boat, anyhow. She's running the sweetest I've ever heard."

"Oil the bearings every three weeks and again after sleet," said Piero automatically. "You have to get the stuff they make at Greaves, the Rothwild grease is just not refined properly."

"Aye, aye, I remember," said Samuel, weary but with a twinkle in his eye. "Go on, drink up. Pendleton's paying for it."

Piero's eyes drifted across the room, back towards Callista. He swallowed and took another drink. Then he set the mug down on the bar and strode over before he lost his nerve again. 

Callista looked up when he blocked her light. A fleeting expression of disgust passed over her face before it settled into a smooth, professional visage. Piero cleared his throat and wished he had brought his mug and stammered out, "Ah, so...that's it, then."

Callista was unmoved. "I suppose it is," she said coolly.

"Yes," said Piero. That was clearly the end of that conversation. He cast about for another topic; all he could think of was the pylon. "You might be interested to know that I have been building a new design in my workshop. It is a great improvement over--" Callista looked suddenly horrified. "No, it is not, um. It is an electric device. Meant to stimulate the nervous system, it's--" The look of horror only magnified. His ears were ringing. He wanted to throw up. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Emily had stopped painting and was watching in gleeful fascination. "I-- just. Um." He took a deep breath and stepped back a few inches, closed his eyes and talked slowly, so he wouldn't stutter.

"I apologize for my ungentlemanly behavior," he said stiffly, the heat in his cheeks letting him know he was probably blushing a bright red. "I am glad everything has worked out well. I hope you find the life at the Tower that you deserve." He backed up another step, then belatedly declared, "And. Congratulations, your Majesty," towards Emily.

Piero turned and pushed his way back through the crowd. There couldn't be that many people in the pub, and yet the room seemed full to bursting, ringing with noise, voices churning together and flooding his senses. Laughter brayed, too loud; he imagined they must be laughing at him. It was so hot. Pendleton was nearly comatose, Havelock and Martin were shouting; even Corvo was swaying on his feet. It seemed like an age before he was on the other side, out into the clear salt air. 

Somewhere there had to be a tincture that provided courage, a preparation that gave eloquence, a salt that granted camaraderie. He had never found them. Despite years of careful study that mysterious alchemical interaction of the human animal only dissolved in his hands and left him staggering in its wake. His brain added this most recent misfire to its long and comprehensive list. He squeezed his eyes shut and wondered how long it would take before he could forget it. The memory of Corvo catching him looking through the keyhole rose unbidden, and he felt sick again. Callista would never stop looking at him like that.

He had focused on the arc pylon until it was almost out of his mind when he registered a soft rapping on the half-raised shutter, heard only when he paused to let the torch cool. Piero put the torch down and pushed the goggles up onto his head. Cecelia was standing half-bent to one side so that she could look into the shop.

"Mr. Joplin?" she was saying. "Is it safe?"

"Yes, come in."

Cecelia ducked under the sill of the metal shutter. Her skin, too, was flushed with the heat and drink from inside. She was holding two mugs of beer, her own and the one he had been drinking. "You left this," she said, setting his on the table by the open wall.

"Oh," said Piero. "Thank you."

"Of course," said Cecelia. She laughed nervously. "You know what Samuel's been saying all night. It's. Everyone should be celebrating on a night like this."

"I suppose so," said Piero. He came over to the table.

"To Corvo," said Cecelia, lofting her mug. "And her Majesty, of course. Long may she reign." Piero raised his in silent agreement and drank. The beer was still good.

"Oh, that reminds me," said Cecelia, reaching into a pocket with a little grin. "I picked this up while I was out getting the food for the party." She drew out a flat black spool and placed it on the workshop table. Wound on it was a thick copper wire.

Piero picked it up and pulled out the end of the strand. The copper bent smoothly, but held its shape. He held it up to the light. It had a ruddy tint to it.

"This is Serkonan copper," he said, astonished.

"I know," said Cecelia.

Piero kept himself from clutching the spool of wire to his chest, but only just. Real high-grade drawn Serkonan copper, thick and capable of carrying a heavy load without sparks or heat. He hadn't seen it since before the quarantine blockade. "Where did you find this?"

"Would you believe some rag-diver on the street?" said Cecelia, naming the peddlers that dove for salvage in the ruins of the Flooded District. "It must have come up from one of the old warehouses' workshops. I saw it in her cart and got for two coin. She had no idea what it was."

"This is perfect," said Piero, excited. "This is just what I needed." He left the mug on the table and went to measure the copper wire against the man-height skeleton of the arc pylon rising on the shop floor.

"So. What is it?" said Cecelia, gesturing towards the object.

"An arc pylon," said Piero, still measuring.

"Really?" said Cecelia, sounding amazed. "Like Sokolov's?"

"Better than Sokolov's," hissed Piero, with more force than he meant to. He wrapped the wire back on the spool. It was perfect. It would be just long enough. He came back to the table and took another drink.

"I bet it is," said Cecelia. She glanced down at the floor. A few wisps of red hair had come undone from beneath her pageboy cap, and they curled in the damp air. "So, uh. After Emily moves to the Tower. Are you going to go too?"

Piero considered the idea for a moment, contemplating the remainder of the beer. "Likely not," he said at last. "Not enough space around the Tower. I will have to find some open ground to build a new laboratory."

"But you're not going to come back here," said Cecelia.

"Once I have moved my equipment, no, I think not," he said, and drank the last of the beer. "The facilities are not adequate for my work. As the Royal Physician I will need a lot more room."

"The Royal Physician. Of course." Cecelia was still looking at the floor. He set the empty mug down on the desk. She picked it up. "Well, um. I'd better get back. But, um. If there's anything else you need tonight, just, um, let me know. Okay?"

"Mm-hmm," said Piero, only half-listening. Now that he'd stepped back from the pylon, he could see that one side of it needed to be rearranged before he welded on the next piece. It was good he'd noticed that. Otherwise he would have regretted it afterwards.

"Okay," repeated Cecelia, mostly to herself. She took the empty mug and vanished back to the pub.

Piero relit the welding torch and went back to work.

When he lurched upstairs, already half-asleep, and took a slug from the bottle of tonic next to his bed, he spotted the brass key gleaming on his desk in the moonlight. I'll show you, he thought, and it was a familiar burn. I'll show you who I am.