Clockwork Universe – Chapter 2

When most people catch their foot on a loose paving slab while walking down the street, they think little of it. Kel was not most people. Kel knew better than to dismiss such things. After stopping to check whether anyone was around – luckily it was a quiet side street and the hour was late – he bent down and heaved the slab out of its place. He lowered it back down to one side so the underneath was showing and wiped away the accumulated dirt as pill bugs scattered in the unfamiliar phosphorescent light from the street lamp. As he’d expected, etched into the surface of the concrete, neatly inscribed by hand in block capitals, slightly worn by time and the elements, was a set of instructions, addressed directly to him. “Ah, this shit again, huh?”

It always made him shiver when he thought about the knowledge they had about him, about his life, that they could know the exact moment he’d trip on a paving slab and write a message for him on it – what? – thirty years ago? Forty? It meant that one of them had been here, or in the place they made the slabs anyway, and had actually written all this in the wet concrete in anticipation of this moment. It was fucked up. But he’d agreed to help out a long time ago and so far it had worked to his advantage. In return for the odd favour for the people he thought of as the time cops, other things seemed to go his way more often than not. Unexpected job offers, parking tickets written off, even the odd date with women he knew for a fact were way out of his league. Or maybe his luck was no better than anyone else’s, he just saw a pattern where one didn’t exist. But it was hard to think like that when you were staring at a personalised note someone left for you on a paving slab before you were even born.

That’s why, the next night, he was less than a block away from where he’d found his little postcard from the past, with a bag over one shoulder, hoping the regular cops didn’t spot him and think he was pushing something. But that never happened. They saw to that, he figured. So he just leant on the wall of the alley, a little way down from a bunch of overflowing dumpsters, fucking about with his phone. At the exact time the paving slab had specified, he felt the weird inrush of air he’d been expecting and put his phone away. He turned aside as the flash came – he’d found out the hard way it was a bad idea to look right at it – counted slowly to three, then turned back.

A woman was standing behind the dumpster, blinking and staring around with a bewildered expression. She was younger than he thought she’d be, cute in a sort of mousy way, nothing much like any of the others he’d met. Wordlessly, he handed her a wrapped parcel. “What?”

“Inside.”

She opened it and then her eyes went wide. “Oh my god…” She sank her teeth gratefully into the sandwich, devouring it in less than ten seconds. When she got her breath back, she looked up in horror. “Sorry.”

“It’s normal,” Kel said with a shrug. He passed her a bottle of water.

“I’ve never felt that hungry before.”

“You don’t need to eat there, right?”

She swallowed a gulp of water. “You know about that?”

“You’re not my first operative.”

“Oh. Well you’re my first…uh…”

“Contact. I’m Kel.” He held out his hand and she took it a little hesitantly.

“I’m…”

“Frankie, I know.”

“They told you, huh?”

“Kinda.”

“And tuna mayo. My favourite.”

“They’re real thorough.” He led her out of the alley. “So it’s your first time?”

“Yeah.”

“Nervous?”

“Um. Do you know what I’m here to do?”

“Absolutely not. I figure it’s all pretty need to know, yeah?”

“That seems to be the general idea. Sorry, did you say your name was Kel?”

“Yeah.”

“The journey is…uh…a little disorientating.” She looked back down the alley, gesturing vaguely the way she’d come.

“It’s cool. Here, I’m parked down the street. I’ll give you a ride to your hotel.”

“Sure, yeah.”

When they were in the car, Frankie looked around. She seemed to be breathing a little more easily now. He passed her the bag. “What’s this?”

“Everything you’ll need. When do you snap back?”

She glanced at the bracelet she wore. “A week. You seem really well-informed…”

“Professional curiosity.” He pulled out. “So where you from?”

“Portland. Well, more or less.”

“No, I mean what year.”

“Oh. 2001.”

“No kidding.” He whistled through his teeth as they merged into traffic. Even at this hour, the roads were busy. “Hope this won’t be too disorientating for you.”

“It’s 2019, right?”

“Sure is.”

“How much can have changed?”

He laughed at that. “You want me to fill you in?”

“Please.”

“When did you leave?”

“September.”

“Oh yeah? Before or…”

“Just after.”

He smiled ruefully. “Well you missed all the fun, kid.”

“That bad?”

“War in Iraq.”

“Another one?”

“Oh yeah. And Afghanistan. Or was that first? Fuck knows.”

“Did we at least win?”

“Jury’s still out.”

She looked at him. “After eighteen years?”

“Basically.” He shrugged. “I ain’t into geopolitics, but wars don’t really end these days.”

“Shit.”

“It’s not all bad. We had a black president for a little while.”

“For real?”

“Honest to God.”

“Who’s the president now?”

“You…uh…you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Christ. All right then.” She opened the bag and pulled out the contents. “What is this?”

“Debit card. Enough to get you by. And that’s a hotel keycard. They had those in 2001, right?”

“Sure.” She picked up one of the other objects. “And this?”

“Burner phone.”

She turned the black rectangle over in her hands. “This is a phone?”

That made him grin. “Yeah.”

“I thought they were getting smaller, not bigger.”

He reached over as the taxi in front slowed at an intersection. “Here, press this button. It’s just locked.”

She stared down. “What is this? Touchscreen?”

“Yeah.”

“You said this was a phone?”

“It’s a smartphone. They’re like, a phone, a camera, a computer, an iPod, all in one.”

“Wow.”

“So you can get on the internet and stuff. Do some of your own research.”

“It’s gonna take me a while to figure this out.”

“They’re pretty intuitive.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“My number’s in there too, if you need anything. New York can be pretty confusing, whatever year you’re from.”

“Thanks.” She looked up at the buildings as they started moving again. “Always wanted to come here.”

“Lived here my whole life.”

“Pity I won’t get the chance to do any of the tourist stuff.”

“No? Got a full schedule?”

“Apparently.” She showed him the phone. “This thing has a calendar on it and it just got updated with a bunch of appointments.”

He nodded. “Oh yeah, they do stuff like that. Just be glad you didn’t stub your toe on a paving slab.”

*

Marco showed her down a long hallway, broad and high like the central nave of some European cathedral, stretching away to another impossible distance. Huge windows filled one wall, letting in the still, unchanging light of Ouroboros. This was just one wing of a gargantuan edifice that dominated one section of the city, a golden palace set out like a bike’s wheel, each spoke one of these vast halls.

“This is, in a way, the heart of everything we do,” Marco explained as they walked. They’d walked everywhere – there was no other form of transport here that Frankie had seen – but she never felt tired, just like she never felt hungry or thirsty or any other kind of physical need. Biological processes just didn’t seem to happen here. Would she get her period? That was an odd thought. Marco continued talking, gesturing to doors that they passed, “Each of these wings holds hundreds of Conduits that take us back to the Prime.”

“To different places?”

“Different times. The location is malleable.”

“Right.”

“Each wing houses roughly contemporaneous Conduits. That is, they lead to similar time periods.”

“So you can’t just go anywhere? Or…anywhen?”

“Sadly not. Conduits are naturally occurring. We can’t build them, only discover them, and link them to our equipment here.”

She thought about that. “But you found me in 2001?”

“I arrived a couple of months before. I had to wait around for you to be in the right place. There are enough Conduits that we can normally get within less than a year of when we need to do whatever we need to do.”

“You spent two months just…hanging around?”

“Basically.”

“What wing is this?”

“This one is your time period. We call it the Late Capitalism Wing.”

Late capitalism?”

“Yeah. It spans from the fall of the Berlin Wall up until sometime in the mid-21st Century. The era when capitalism became the dominant global imperative.”

“And after that? Wait, no spoilers. Sorry.”

He stopped and turned to her with a smile. “Now you’re getting it. Like I told you before, everyone sticks to the period they came from, because it just makes things easier. The next wing along, that way,” he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, “that’s the Cold War Wing. The next one is the World Wars and Depression Wing. Honestly, you’re pretty lucky. For all the shit that goes down around this period, it’s mostly a fairly benign world. At least, for white people.”

“That’s reassuring…”

“Nowhen’s perfect.” He carried on walking. “I’m going to show you the Conduit you’ll be using when we send you on your first mission.”

“I’d ask when that will be, but I get the sense that’s kind of a meaningless question.”

“Eh…not exactly. It’s more complicated than you might think.”

“Well of course it is. What was I thinking?”

The doors were wooden, carved with the ever-present clockwork motif, but with no handles. When Marco pushed on the one they’d come to, it opened automatically with a quiet ticking sound. She looked at the frame as they passed through to see if she could spot the mechanism, but there was nothing visible.

Beyond the door was a large, round chamber with a vaulted ceiling. The walls were set with columns at equal intervals, and the light came from arched windows set high above, streaming down like golden searchlights. The floor was flagstone rather than tiles and there were a few benches scattered around along with a couple of cabinets set into the recesses made by the columns. But that was all just a backdrop for the bizarre construction in the centre of the room. Frankie had been expecting some sort of pulsing vortex, but instead it was a simple empty brass doorframe, ornate but appearing in no way eldritch. It stood on the stone floor, and on either side, connected to it by pipes in the same brass, were machines. They had inlaid wood panelling, polished knobs and dials, levers, glass gauges with neat lettering, secret little drawers with golden hinges – all very Victorian. “You guys ever think about kidnapping an interior designer sometime? I mean, it’s all very cool, but it’d be nice if you mixed it up a little bit, you know.”

“You must be Frankie Bedford.” A woman stepped out from behind one of the panels. Frankie hadn’t seen her because she was very short and almost equally wide. Her hair was a cloud of unruly grey strands that floated around her head like a dandelion clock and she wore neatly-fitted overalls in a drab brown. Her face and hands were both smeared with grease. She pulled up the opaque goggles she wore and scrutinised Frankie with a pair of very blue eyes.

“Frankie,” Marco said, “meet Lydia. One of our best engineers.”

“One of?” Lydia raised an eyebrow, then turned back to Frankie. “I was told you’d be dropping by to inspect this Conduit.”

“No no, I’m not inspecting anything. Marco was just showing me around, giving me a bit of a crash course in what to expect.”

“Ha!” Lydia’s barked laugh was very loud and echoed around the room. “Is that what you told her, Marco?”

“I didn’t use those words.”

“Good. No amount of training will prepare you for passing through a Conduit, girl. Trust me on that one.” She tugged at her hair. “When I first got here, I was a blonde.”

“Wait, I don’t understand…”

Lydia rolled her eyes and bent back to the panel she’d been working at. Marco cleared his throat. “So, one thing I haven’t explained yet is that, when you’re back in the Prime, your metabolism will sort of, pick up where it left off. You’ll get hungry, sleepy, you’ll age again…”

“It’ll really fuck with your menstrual cycle too,” Lydia added without looking up from her work. Her hands were deep inside the machinery now, and she had a pained expression on her face as she dug around.

“Good to know.”

“So,” Marco went on, “if you go back a lot, you’ll get older. Which means anyone you see who looks a little…uh…”

“Old,” Lydia supplied as she stood again, wiping her hands off on her overalls.

“Old, yeah. Has probably got a lot of experience as an operative.”

“Where’s my five-D spanner?” Lydia patted at the pockets on her overalls. “Klaus? Have you seen it?”

Frankie hadn’t noticed anyone else in the room, but suddenly there was a shifting of gears and the sound of more clockwork ticking as a mass of machine parts she’d assumed was part of the Conduit pulled itself up into a humanoid shape and suddenly became a mechanical automaton. It was taller than either her or Marco, broad and rounded like a bell, with limbs resembling pistons and fingers made of delicate wire holding together gold-plated joints. Its head was almost comically small in comparison to its towering body, cast into a facsimile of a human’s, with a limited range of expressions made by its few moving parts. The lenses that served as its eyes seemed to narrow as shutters emerged from above and below them, unfolding like neat little blinds. “A please would be nice, Lydia,” it said. Frankie started at the sound – she hadn’t heard one talk before. Its voice sounded strange and echoey, and it seemed to speak with the wrong combination of inhales and exhales. As it talked, she could see something moving within its segmented carapace, like a bellows inflating and deflating.

“Did I hurt your feelings, tin-man?”

“I am made of bronze. But you know that.” It moved from its position, limbs pumping jerkily and reached down to retrieve a curious object from a wooden shelf on the Conduit’s machinery. “Here is your spanner. Honestly, Lydia, you would lose your head were it not connected to your spinal column by a dense structure of bone, muscle, sinew and skin.”

“Try to control your disgust for our squishy biological parts for a little bit, Klaus. We have guests.” She took the tool he’d proffered. Though they’d referred to it as a spanner, it looked more like an intricate musical instrument with tubes that looped back on one another in a way that hurt her head to look at.

“I make no promises. And yes, I did notice. Apologies to both of you: I was engrossed in my work. Greetings to you, Marco. And you must be the human female Frankie Bedford. I am Cogman Alpha-II-C, but all of my friends call me Klaus. It would please me if you did the same.” It held out its hand.

Frankie regarded the strange appendage for a moment, before taking it. Its fingers enclosed hers with surprisingly gentleness, and their gold pads felt pleasantly pliable where they pressed against her skin. “Hi.”

“I find the way Cogs are so polite pretty grating,” Lydia said.

“You would,” Klaus said, its eyes narrowing again. “Frankie Bedford: may I refer to you simply as Frankie?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Thank you. How are you settling in, Frankie?”

“It’s…it’s still a little disorientating.”

“I am sure it is. A period of adjustment is generally advisable for all humans who come to stay here. A pity you cannot simply do that adjustment yourself, but I suppose that is inevitable when you have blood and organs instead of clockwork.” It paused expectantly. “That was,” it added after the silence had begun to grow awkward, “a joke,”

“Oh! Sorry!”

“You would think my timing would be better.”

She laughed this time. “Hey, I got that one!”

Its face drew up into a broad smile. “I am improving, Lydia!”

“Who ever said you couldn’t make progress in a pocket dimension with no time, huh?”

“What is it you’re doing here?” Frankie asked, looking passed the giant clockwork man.

“Just some tune-ups,” Lydia explained. She put her spanner or whatever it was to one side and closed up the panel she’d been working on. “Y’see, most Conduits are hardly ever used after they’re discovered and harnessed. We have to make sure they’re still safe before we send anyone through ‘em.”

“It’s dangerous to use them?”

“Doesn’t this kid know anything, Marco?”

“Hey, she’s new. Be nice.”

“Passing through the dimensional membrane is potentially traumatic for biological organisms,” Klaus explained in its strange, breathy voice, “but Conduits have a natural lifespan of their own. Despite knowing already that you will arrive safely for your mission, there is always a tiny amount of quantum uncertainty that no amount of preparation can overcome.”

Frankie struggled to make sense of that. “A natural lifespan? But I thought time didn’t flow here?”

“Conduits are connected to the Prime,” Lydia said, “they have their own temporal fields, and they aren’t always straightforward. Here, come and look ‘round the back and I’ll show you how it works.”

Frankie did as she was asked and joined Lydia in front of little brass cabinet in which a series of cogwheels were set, moving in a slow, steady rhythm. Two at either end of the system were larger and more ornate, and their edges were inscribed with symbols in a language she didn’t know.

“Has pretty boy over there explained why we use clockwork so much here?”

“I just figured it was an aesthetic choice.”

“There’s a bit of that. Anders is a romantic. And he was born in the 19th Century. But it’s more than that: we have access to the sum total of human technological achievement. The electronics and computing of your era are just the start, but all that high-tech shit depends on physical processes that don’t work here. We can’t use anything electrical in Ouroboros, and any kind of quantum computing is a complete no-go. So the only way we can do the math we need to to make any of this crap work is by using clockwork. Gears. Differentials. Those are the key. See this here? It’s like a little clock telling us what time it is on the other side of the Conduit.”

“You mean they don’t just open up at one point in time?”

“No, Conduits are affected by time in the Prime, but not at the same rate that we bios perceive it here. Now, time here is an illusion, right? But we can use mechanical means to track our continuity of experience. That’s this wheel here.” She pointed to the decorated one on the left. “And here on the other side…” her finger moved to the righthand one, “is the effective time in the Prime, ticking by at a different rate. Hence all the cogs between them. That’s the continuity differential, as we call it. Each Conduit’s CD is unique. So, if you step through that doorway now, you’ll find yourself in February 2019. Wait a few days – perceptually speaking – and it’ll be a whole month later in the Prime on the other side of this Conduit.”

“I think I understand…”

“Because they’re all different,” Marco said, having now sidled up behind them, “each Conduit has a lifespan. We theorise that they all once simultaneously connected to t=0.”

“To what?”

Lydia mimed an explosion with her hands. “Big Bang.”

“Or however the universe started. But because of their different CDs, they now all lead to different points in the universe’s history. It’s like they’ve become spread out over time.”

“So if I need to be in a certain place at a certain time…”

“You need to enter the Conduit at the right point in your own continuity of experience,” Lydia explained. “Or you miss the boat, kiddo.”

“But why is it dangerous? If you know a Conduit’s CD, what risk is there?”

“Not all continuity differentials remain constant,” said Klaus, looming over the top of the machinery from the other side. “As a Conduit’s exit point approaches t=infinity, it begins to exhibit chaotic properties.”

“T=infinity? What’s that?”

“You don’t need to worry about that,” Marco said, “come on, we’ve taken up enough of these people’s time. There’s a lot more to see.”

Frankie frowned and shared a glance with Lydia. The older woman just looked away and started fiddling at the hinges on another panel. Klaus’s expression was, predictably, unreadable. “Okay then. Cool. Let’s go.”

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This entry was posted in Contemporary, Magical Realism, Ongoing Series, Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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