A woman who was meant to die is saved at the last moment by a mysterious stranger and taken to a place where death and time have no meaning, a city outside the universe where all of human history has already unfolded. She will save the world. In fact, from the perspective of the inhabitants of Ouroboros, she already has…
‘Clockwork Universe’ is a new serialised story about the nature of causality and the ultimate destiny of the human race.
According to the official records, Frankie Bedford died in a plane crash in September 2001. No, not one of those ones. It was a domestic flight from Portland to Omaha that went down in bad weather somewhere over the Rockies near the Montana-Idaho border. Coming so soon after the attacks in New York, there was speculation locally that it might be related, but that was soon ruled out and the authorities concluded it was an ordinary, tragic aviation accident. Just a small plane in a storm that got unlucky. And, again, occurring in the wake of 9/11 also meant it was pushed way down the news agenda, lost in the birth-cries of the changed world that was emerging, so that hardly anyone except those directly affected, who lost loved ones, even remembered it had happened. Everyone on board was killed including Frankie. According to the official records, anyway.
In the cabin, on that day, as things started to go wrong, something strange happened. Stranger than a plane crash, even. Frankie, like everyone else around her, started to panic as the emergency announcement began. She looked out of the window at the rapidly-moving clouds, lit by flashes of lightning, then back into the cabin. A man was seated next to her. She hadn’t paid any attention to him but now he fixed her with a piercing gaze. “It’s going to be all right,” he said, his voice even and completely calm. “Here.” He held out his hand.
“I…yeah, okay…” As she placed her hand in his, his grip suddenly tightened. She instinctively pulled back, alarmed, but he’d pulled out a sort of brass bracelet and swiftly fastened it to her wrist. “What…?”
“You may want to hold your breath,” he said as he flicked open a panel on the bracelet and twisted at some minute, polished dials.
The world disappeared in a blaze of cerulean light and she felt the air being forced from her lungs. She tried to scream but couldn’t. She felt weightless, floating, and the sounds of panicked screaming from the plane’s other passengers disappeared, cutting out like a needle lifting from a record. All she could hear was the continuous roar of her own blood in her ears, the rhythmic beat of her heart, and a low hum, like discharging electricity. The only remnant from the world she had abruptly left was the reassuring grip on her hand. She opened her eyes and saw the face of the man, fixed with a tight smile. Everything else was blinding light, rushing wind, crackling energy.
Then, with another record scratch, she was standing on solid ground. Well, momentarily: the rapid changes in equilibrium caused her to pitch forward with a cry and land on her hands and knees on a cool, tiled floor. Her head spun and she felt like she was about to throw up. Then someone grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to her feet. She blinked a few times and steadied herself.
“You probably have a lot of questions.”
“Um. Yes. Am I dead?”
“Okay. That explains a few things. Well. One thing.”
The person talking to her was an elderly man resting both hands on a cane. He was dressed in an old-fashioned suit with tails on the jacket, a waistcoat underneath and what she thought was called a cravat tucked under his starched shirt collar. His grey hair was immaculately combed and he peered at her through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. His hands were liver-spotted but rested easily on the ivory handle of his cane. She looked around. The person who’d hauled her upright was the man from the plane. He was younger, handsome, square-jawed, dark-eyed, wearing ordinary business clothes. He was taking off a bracelet like the one he’d clapped onto her wrist. He smiled at her again.
“You were…” She turned back to the older man. “The plane!”
“But I saved you,” her fellow passenger explained.
“Explanations can wait,” cane guy said.
“No, I think I’d like to know where I am, please.” Frankie looked around for the first time, taking stock of her surroundings. She stood in a vast space; so vast that the walls faded into dim shadow, though there was the impression of huge columns holding up an immense domed roof in the gloom. The tiles under her feet covered the entire floor, forming a colossal pattern that stretched off into the distance. There was no furniture that she could see anywhere. The dome above was patterned too, or possibly carved. There were no windows, but a soft, golden light permeated the space. “Is this…”
“It’s not any kind of afterlife,” handsome guy interrupted, “he already told you you weren’t dead.”
“How did you know I was going to ask that?”
“Everyone does. I did.”
“So where am I then?”
“This place is called the Receiving Hall,” said cane guy, “but it is only one small part of a city that is called many things, but most commonly Ouroboros.”
“Right. And that is where, exactly?”
“That is a difficult question to answer.”
“Why am I not surprised?” She looked down at the bracelet that had been foisted upon her. “Can I take this thing off?”
“Here.” Handsome guy took her hand again and unfastened the bracelet.
“How did I get off the plane?”
He held it up. “With this.”
“Are you from the future?”
He smiled. “No. I’m from the past, actually. But that’s also pretty complicated.”
Frankie looked around and at both men again. “If it’s okay with the two of you, I’m going to assume that this is some sort of hypoxia-induced hallucination.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” said cane guy, “once we have told you all you need to know, you’ll begin to understand why you were chosen.”
“Chosen? Chosen for what?”
“For a task that only a tiny minority of humanity throughout history are capable of performing.”
“Saving the world,” handsome guy told her. “Come on, let me show you around.”
“Saving… You know what, fine. Whatever. Might as well enjoy whatever my brain’s doing in the moments before I die. Lead on.”
Cane guy fell in with them as they passed by and spoke with handsome guy in a voice that was low but not inaudible to Frankie, following behind still in something of a daze. “How was it?”
“Not as tough as I expected. They’re still in shock at that time. The security theatre won’t begin in earnest for a little while.”
“Are you certain you were unobserved?”
Handsome guy smirked. “Of course. You know me. I got her out at the last possible moment. No witnesses left alive.”
Frankie wanted to ask them to explain what they were talking about, but she had a suspicion they’d just give her more cryptic answers. She gazed up and around her. The wall they were heading towards was coming into focus now. It was decorated with abstract friezes, picked out primarily in gold and brass. There was a continuing motif of cogs and gears which she now realised was also repeated on the tiled floor and, she saw as she approached, the veining of the massive marble columns too. “Y’all like clockwork, huh?”
Handsome guy grinned over his shoulder. “You have no idea, Frankie.”
That was the beginning of her first day in the so-called Eternal City of Ouroboros, though as she would soon learn, the very notion of days was purely theoretical here. She had been saved from death for a very specific purpose and was about to enter a world stranger than anything she’d imagined before. But right then, she was just confused.
Frankie and Marco sat on a balcony overlooking the Great Plaza of Moments, a wide round space made up of interlocking circular platforms of different levels, designed to appear like cogs in an enormous stone clock. Only a few people moved across the plaza – some were human, but most possessed the jerky movement typical of the mechanical automata that made up the majority of Ouroboros’s population. The unchanging golden light reflected off the great polished domes and soaring towers, refracted through high crystalline structures that turned according to their own internal clockwork to throw scattered rainbows here and there and provided some semblance of change in a place that was, by definition, utterly unchanging. The sky that hung over the shining metropolis resembled an eye-wrenching starscape, but like almost everything else it remained completely motionless, a bright haze of constellations marking fixed points against a backdrop that was almost as bright. ‘The Light of Infinity’, Marco called it. Something to do with all the visible light in the universe leaking through some sort of invisible dimensional skein. She didn’t pretend to understand half of what he’d told her so far.
Marco was handsome guy. He’d remained her guide during these, well, ‘days’ wasn’t right, but during this continuity of experience. That was another of Marco’s phrases. She marked the passage of that continuity with meals, though in fact she hadn’t felt hungry since her abrupt arrival. Never needed the bathroom either, or felt tired. It was disconcerting. They ate now, a Mediterranean-style buffet spread out on the balcony’s table, brought to them by one of the ticking automata that she still wasn’t used to.
“Who built all this?” she asked Marco.
“As far as is known, no one. It’s always existed.”
“But…I mean…Anders must know, right?” That was cane guy.
“If he does, he hasn’t ever told me.” Marco popped an olive into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “But you know time doesn’t exist here anyway, so it really makes no sense to talk about beginnings and endings of things. There’s only the Singular Moment.”
“Then what about your continuity of experience? You haven’t always been here, have you? You said yourself that you thought you’d died when you first arrived.”
“There are some questions I can answer and some I can’t.”
“Great. Okay, how about this: where does the food come from?” She held up a slice of ham.
“From the same place we do. We have a lot of stores and of course it doesn’t spoil here, and we don’t need to eat, it’s just pleasant to do so from time to time. Don’t worry, there’s plenty to go around.”
“Where are you from?”
“You don’t have an Italian accent.”
“I haven’t been home for a very long time.”
He smiled his handsome smile again. “You know that’s a…”
“Complicated question, yes yes.” Frankie rolled her eyes. “When did you leave?”
“By the calendars of the day, the year was 1632.”
“It’s true,” he said with a mild shrug. He picked up another olive.
“You’ve been here for four-hundred years?”
“No.” He raised a finger. “And not because of some bullshit paradoxical answer. My continuity of experience doesn’t stretch as far as that. I came here, like you, with a Snapper.” That was what the bracelets were properly called, apparently, “and when I left, it was 1632. But since I was brought here, I’ve returned to a number of different centuries in the Prime. The Singular Moment gives us access to almost any time period, which is what allows us to do what we do.”
“The Prime?” That was a new one.
“The universe of time and space. Home.”
“So we’re in another universe? Is that the story?”
Marco shook his head. “Not exactly. There are actually a few competing theories, but the most commonly accepted one is that Ouroboros is within a sort of extra-dimensional vacuole of spacetime, isolated and following its own version of physics. We think it possesses all the regular spatial dimensions, but time is somehow looped around itself. That’s why we call it Ouroboros.” The name, she’d been told, came from an ancient mystic symbol of a snake devouring its own tail, representing infinity. “The only clue to how it was settled by humans is that the oldest Conduits we have to the Prime can only take us back to the dawn of civilisation – Mesopotamia, Egypt, those kinds of places – there’s no way to travel to a period before the invention of writing.”
“Weird. But no weirder than anything else.” She tore off a piece of bread and ate it as she looked out across the strange city again. “These Conduits are the way back home, right?”
“In a sense.”
“And you use them to visit the past?”
“Yes. And the future as well.”
She turned around with a start. “The future? You can go to the future?”
“Of course. Remember, from my perspective, you yourself are from the future.”
“I guess so. There are people here from my future then? Like, the 24th Century or whatever? Star Trek people?”
He laughed. “Maybe not that exactly, but broadly, yes.”
“Can I meet them?”
“Eventually. Not yet though. We have reasons for keeping operatives from wildly different time period separate.”
“Operatives…you’ve used that word before. What do you mean by it?”
“We didn’t save your life out of altruism, Frankie. Remember when I told you we wanted you to save the world?”
“Oh yeah. I was specially chosen, right?”
“We all were.”
“But don’t be too disappointed: less than one in ten-thousand people throughout the span of human history are suitable to become operatives. And even fewer of them are in the right circumstances to be brought here.”
He held up a finger. “First of all, they have to be about to die. That way they won’t be missed.”
“I mean, they won’t suddenly disappear without explanation.”
“They do, but it’s got nothing to do with us. They also need to be about to die in a way that doesn’t merit detailed investigation, or leave a corpse. Natural disasters are ideal: when a lot of people die at once, it’s easy to take one of them away.”
Frankie considered this. “Was that how you were supposed to die?”
“No. In my case it was plague.”
“Yeah. I was in a, well, you could call it a hospital, I suppose. Me and a few hundred others. It was really just a place to die, to contain the disease. Not a pleasant establishment.”
“It’s just a memory now. Coming here arrested the progress and I was able to recover. But the point is that I wasn’t missed. No one knows how many lives were lost in that outbreak. No one counted the bodies they brought out of the building.”
He shrugged and dipped a piece of bread in olive oil. “It was a different age than the one you’re from. A harsher time.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“You’re referring to the terrorist attacks?”
She nodded. “It’s fucking scary.”
“It’s a difficult few decades,” Marco said, “but nothing like that happens again. The real threat to civilisation comes from the response to the possibility of it happening again. That and…well, no spoilers. Isn’t that what you say?”
“Hm. Maybe that idiom doesn’t become commonplace until later in the century.”
Frankie rubbed her head. Making sense of this wasn’t easy. “So, you can use your Conduits to go to any point in history, right?”
“Yes, more or less.”
“So you know what’s going to happen? You pluck your operatives out of their times when they’re about to die, but some are from the 17th Century, like you, and some are from my future. Which means you know what’s going to happen.”
“I can’t go into details about things too far into the future.”
She leant across the table and pointed at him accusingly. “But you know your future! You’re from four-hundred years ago!”
“I’m…senior. Normally, operatives only work during periods roughly contemporary with their own natural lives. It makes blending in easier. I couldn’t have visited the early 21st Century when I first arrived here. Even if I was sent to Italy, the language and culture would have been completely alien. Do you know how much spoken language evolves in just a few centuries? Most forms don’t stabilise until the advent of sound recording technology. Even though my Italian and 21st Century Italian are mutually intelligible on the page, when actually said aloud, the differences are shocking.”
“So I’d be going back home? To my time, I mean?”
“Essentially. Which brings us to the other selection criteria for operatives. Lack of connections.”
Frankie sat back. “Right. Those.”
“We have to reduce the risk of you being recognised by people who knew you before you supposedly died.”
“Well I guess that makes sense then…”
“Sorry, I have to be blunt. If it helps, we’re all basically the same. I never even knew my parents. My mother was a whore, my father could have been one of a dozen different men. She died when I was an infant and I grew up on the streets.”
“Yes, it wasn’t much of a life I led. I was nineteen when I caught the plague. Or, so I’m told. I had no idea when I was born at the time.”
“Orphaned in early childhood, like me. A string of foster families, some time in the system, constantly moving around, a stint in prison…”
“I know my life story, thank you.” She swallowed. “You know, it doesn’t feel good having everything you are summarised like that.”
“Frankie,” Marco said, his voice dropping as he leant across the table to her, “if that was everything you are, you wouldn’t be here. Every operative in Ouroboros has a similarly tragic story. We were all neglected, all abandoned, all forgotten in some way. That’s part of what made us candidates. You’ve been given another chance.” He held out his hands, and she took them. “Back in the Prime, you didn’t get the chance to make an impression on the people around you. Now, you’ll make an impression on the destiny of all humankind.”
“You said when I arrived that I was going to save the world. What did you mean by that, Marco?”
“Exactly what I said.”
“But what do operatives do? We can go to anywhere, at any point in history?”
“And what? We change things? Put right what once went wrong? Guide people to a better future?”
“No, Frankie. We guide them to the only future. You see, from our perspective, our intervention has already happened. History has been written, from the beginnings of civilisation to its ending. We know, because we’ve been there.”
“So we’re just…” she searched for a way to phrase it. “Fulfilling our destiny? We already know what happens, we just have to make sure it does?”
“What about free will?”
He smiled gently. “All I can say is, you will do exactly what you want to do, what you think you should in the moment, and that is simultaneously what we know, from looking at the history of the future, you did do.”
“Why do you think I said ‘no spoilers’? You will do what you do. Don’t worry about getting it right.”
Frankie could feel a headache coming on. She looked out at the city again. She hadn’t figured out how big it was yet, how many people lived here, what all these buildings were actually for. And on some level, she wasn’t totally convinced this wasn’t all a death-induced hallucination of some kind. A thought occurred to her as she watched one of the creaky automata laboriously cross the Great Plaza. “You know my future then, I suppose?”
“So when you say I’m going to save the world…”
“You can take my word for it, yes.”
“Well that’s reassuring,” she admitted.
“Good. Because, you should know that what you’ll do isn’t going to be easy. The period you’ll be working in the Prime is a crucial juncture. You’ll need extensive training.”
She puffed out her cheeks. Maybe this was all a dream, the wanderings of a dying mind, but if it was it was a real as anything else she’d experienced. It felt real, even if everything she’d been told sounded like nonsense. “When can we start?” she asked.
“There is – and I have to apologise in advance for saying this, Frankie – no time like the present.”