Frankie was admitted to the conference centre without any complication, exactly as she’d been told to expect. The security wasn’t particularly tight – as far as most people were concerned, this was just a fairly boring lecture about some obscure new physics theory and, even if its discoverer made some grandiose claims about its potential utility, that was par for the course with these sorts of things. Everyone wanted to change the world or, at the very least, secure funding for further research. Frankie knew nothing about academia, but she understood human nature well enough. According to the forged credentials she carried (that she’d received the previous day in the first of her many appointments, this one at a fairly seedy apartment somewhere in Brooklyn) she was a doctor of astrophysics with a specialism in high-energy cosmic gamma rays (sounded like something from a comic book!) at Cleveland State. Her interest in this particular presentation was supposedly only passing in nature as it wasn’t precisely related to her field, but she was in town and thought it might be worth attending. Her name was Pauline Kazinsky, an alias that would not stand up to any real scrutiny, but which would get her into the lecture hall.
“Just make sure no one Googles you,” the man who’d given her the fake documents had said with a wry smile.
“Whats me?” He’d given her a rather strange look.
She was wearing what she supposed was a staid, academic outfit. No make-up, a pair of heavy glasses (the lenses were just transparent plastic), hair put up into a rather severe bun. She’d even learned to walk differently, shuffling along in a pair of unfashionable flats. Not that she normally strutted around like a beauty queen or anything, but she certainly didn’t feel like herself. Not for the first time, she wondered why she’d been chosen by Ouroboros when there were, presumably, actual spies and secret agents and so forth who were really trained to do these kinds of things. Except, in a sense, she wasn’t chosen, was she? Her involvement was ordained from the beginning, her future a known variable. All this was history, kind of. It boggled the mind, which was fortunate because everything she was about to be told would do much the same and it was more or less Frankie’s default sense of being at this point.
She took a seat in the auditorium. It wasn’t full, but there was a respectable audience in attendance. The lectern was on a raised platform that wasn’t quite a stage and there was a big projector screen on the wall behind. The woman giving the presentation was called Professor Alexander. She was very tall and had a slight lisp. Frankie was glazing over before the show even began. She pretended to scribble notes and tried, more out of habit than anything else, to make sense of anything she was being told.
“The equivalency of time and space was first expressed, in its modern form, by Einstein. His theories have underpinned everything that has followed in the world of physics and beyond. Most of you are more than familiar with this paradigm, but what I am proposing is not so much a modification of the established understanding, but a total perspective shift that has the potential to revolutionise…”
Frankie stifled a yawn as the professor droned on. She sounded very excited and talked fast. This was obviously important to her and, to judge from the low murmurs and leaning forward from the occupants of the seats around her, others were starting to share her enthusiasm.
“The paper I published in November caused a stir, but it barely scratched the surface of what asymptotic spatial geometry can teach us about the nature of the universe. This diagram of the supposed spacetime topology of a gravitational singularity – undisputed since Hawking’s ground-breaking black hole theories – may only tell us half the story. As you can see if I apply the first of my equations to the system outside the event horizon and map that graphically…”
There was a buzz of excited whispering as the image on the screen seemed to flip inside out and stretch in two different directions. Frankie just frowned at it, wondering what it was supposed to represent. Did she say something about black holes? It had sort of looked like a picture of one before Alexander had done whatever she’d done to it.
“I’m indebted to Professor Alvarez of NYU who’s in attendance today,” Alexander was saying, holding out a hand to an older man who sat just a few seats away from Frankie. Everyone glanced around and, for a moment, she was in the eyeline of a hundred scientists. She looked at the man too and tried to look like someone who knew a lot about physics would.
“He was the one who noticed the congruity between my equations and Hawking’s and suggested the transform shown here. I don’t think either of us quite understood the implications of that though when we began working on this theory. You see, I’d thought of this as a mere mathematical curiosity, that by modelling time itself as an event horizon – that is, flipping the graph on its axis and imagining a temporal rather than spatial singularity, we produce what I’ve dubbed a local horizon; a region of higher-dimensional space completely isolated from time. But this no mere theoretical construct. Just as Hawking began with the understanding that black holes were simply valid solutions to General Relativity and ended up with an accepted proof of their existence in the physical universe, so too do I believe that the underlying mathematics behind this theory not only can be demonstrated as valid, but must be so, and therefore implies the existence of a corresponding spacetime phenomenon. I have called this asymptotic spacetime, as the feature that distinguishes it from our native spacetime is that where ‘t’ in our universe is variable, in an asymptotic spacetime it would instead tend to infinity.”
Frankie raised an eyebrow very slightly. That sounded familiar. In fact, this whole thing sounded like something she’d heard before. A separate universe without time? Wasn’t that Ouroboros? She felt herself turn cold. Was that why she was here? Had someone discovered them? Why hadn’t Marco briefed her about this? Surely this was important!
The rest of the lecture passed in a confused daze as all the theorising descended into reams of equations and indecipherable diagrams that got the other scientists even more excited. She tried not to seem too bored. She figured that the fictional Dr Kazinsky would be really into this stuff. A woman sitting next to her nudged her after a particularly shocking (?) graph. “Can you believe this?”
“No,” Frankie said, “it’s incredible.” For all she knew, it really might be.
“If these findings can be confirmed,” Alexander said, with the air of someone heading for a big finish, “we may be looking at a new language of physics that could give us not only the Grand Unifying Theory that has eluded science for decades but also have practical applications such as access to an infinite source of clean energy, a means to visit distant stars, and maybe a formulation for consciousness itself.”
The applause was rapturous. Alexander seemed stunned by it and took a step back from the lectern, grinning sheepishly. Frankie was surprised too but maintained her cover and joined in with the standing ovation. She nodded and murmured noncommittal nonsense to anyone trying to engage with her as she pushed through the scrum of babbling academics. “Need some time to absorb it,” she told a particularly insistent grey-haired man before dodging by. She had one last appointment to keep.
Professor Alexander was just extricating herself from a crowd of men and women peppering her with questions, wanting to shake her hand, heaping praise on her. Her colleague, Alvarez, was on hand to field some of the attention, and Alexander, who seemed fairly shy and retiring, stepped free and took a second to catch her breath.
“Professor Alexander?” Frankie said.
“Yes?” She turned in surprise and stared uncomprehendingly.
“I’m Dr Kazinsky, Cleveland State.”
“I…yes…didn’t I read a paper you wrote about…um…”
“High-energy deep space gamma sources.”
Alexander frowned slightly. “Yes…in Nature, wasn’t it?”
“That was it. I must say, I enjoyed your presentation. Highly provocative.”
“Provocative? Yes, yes I suppose it is. I mean, I never meant to call into question…” Someone jostled against her and Frankie took a step back, hooking the professor’s foot with her own as she stepped away, sending both of them crashing down to the ground. As they sprawled on the floor, Alexander’s belongings scattered around, including a flash drive that bounced and landed less than an inch from Frankie’s hand.
“Professor!” Alvarez was helping her up and there were numerous other hands thrust out to help both her and Frankie to their feet.
“I’m so sorry,” said the man who’d bumped her, “I didn’t think I caught you that hard.”
“You didn’t, I just…” Alexander patted herself as she stood up. “Where is…?”
Frankie, now standing too, handed her the flash drive. “This?”
“Oh yes, thank you.” She laughed lightly. “Wouldn’t want to lose that – it’s got everything on it!”
“Lucky,” Frankie murmured.
“Yes, now, you were saying…” But someone else said something over her shoulder and, as she turned to address them, Frankie slipped back into the crowd and beat a hasty retreat out of the auditorium. In her pocket, she cradled the original flash drive rather than the identical one she’d just handed to Alexander which was blank except for a rather nasty piece of software that, if she understood it all correctly, would cause no end of havoc when it was plugged in. She paused at the door to look back at the professor, once again being overwhelmed by well-wishers, and felt a pang of guilt before ducking out.
Frankie had slept, though she didn’t really feel the need. Maybe it was habit. Marco had a bed. Well, he had his choice of hundreds of beds: they all did. Ouroboros was vast, but she’d seen only a handful of people since arriving, even counting the Cogs. She awoke feeling strangely unrefreshed. Not tired, but like she’d had a particularly unsatisfying nap. She pulled the sheets up around her and looked around the room. It was open to a wide terrace, just a huge airy space bordered with columns and the odd piece of furniture. The bed was almost comically oversized. She felt momentarily exposed, naked to the open air, except it wasn’t open air – Ouroboros was a uniform temperature, and since it was so sparsely inhabited there was no reason for her to worry about being spotted by anyone. But like the sleeping, it was a habit she wasn’t quite ready to break yet. She made a makeshift wrap with the sheets and got up. Marco was on the terrace, wearing a rather incongruous silk robe as he sat with his feet up on the balustrade reading a book.
“Hey,” he said, as she approached.
“Hi.” There was another chair and she took it. “Nice spot,” she observed, looking over the edge of the terrace where yet another stepped plaza spread out below them. This one had fountains and some statues, but she couldn’t make out what they were supposed to be from this distance. They looked like people, but they might have been Cogs. Then again, since they were in bronze, maybe they actually were Cogs. Did they come that big?
“One of my favourites,” Marco said.
“What are you reading?”
“Oh yeah? Whose?”
He smiled disarmingly. “They hadn’t been born in your time. Probably best not to tell you too much.”
“Of course. Don’t know why I asked.” She looked at him. “So…”
He placed the book on the low table beside him and leant forward. “So?”
“Maybe for you.”
“Oh stop it.” She tapped him lightly on his bare leg. “I’m still getting used to all this. That was the first time I’ve slept with you, but you’ve slept with me…”
“A lot of times.”
Frankie shook her head. “So, so weird. But it does explain how you…uh…”
“Knew my way around?” he suggested, waggling his eyebrows.
“Heh.” She didn’t know what to make of that yet. She leant back and scratched her chin thoughtfully. “This is a strange dynamic. You know that, right?”
“I do. And I’m sorry, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. I’m trying not to take advantage of you but when we first met – from my perspective – you told me all about this.”
“Oh I did, did I?”
“What’s that word that describes things being inevitable?”
“Right, yeah. This all seems so deterministic.”
“It’s not an either/or proposition. I told you that. Free will is valid, but there’s only one history, and if you encounter someone who viewed that history in a different order…”
“Yeah yeah. I get it. Well, I don’t, but you know.”
He shuffled forward and reached out to take her hand. She really did like how he held her hand. It felt very right. Even though he was almost a stranger to her, that didn’t go both ways. He knew just how to hold her, just where to touch her. Should that make her uncomfortable, or should she find this ready-made connection reassuring?
“There’s no etiquette for this,” he said softly, as if he’d read her mind. Or maybe I’ll just tell him how conflicted I feel one day, her brain chimed in.
“Hasn’t it happened before? You know, something like this. For whatever value of ‘before’ we’re using, of course.”
“It has, but not enough times for any sort of rules to have developed.”
“How many people actually live here, Marco? How many operatives do you have?”
“Would you be very angry if I told you the answer was complicated?”
“Okay, let me ask another way. Right now, at this point of our subjective continuity of experience, how many human beings are in Ouroborous?”
“Probably a few hundred.”
“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, a further question: how big is this place?”
She threw up her hands. “Of course! Of course it does. On what?”
“Remember when I explained how the temporal dimension of this sub-universe is looped around upon itself? Well, space and time aren’t actually separate dimensions at all – they’re intrinsically linked so if you fold one, you have to…I’m losing you, aren’t I?”
“Very much so, Marco.”
“Would you like to try phrasing it differently again?”
She thought about it. “If I went down to that plaza now, and I walked straight up the street there,” she pointed in the direction she was looking, “how long would it take me to reach the edge of the city?”
“How long?” There was that twinkle in his eye again. “You know that question makes no sense here…”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.”
“See the problem? Without time, it’s hard to talk about distance. But, to give you some sort of answer you can actually use, you’d never come to the edge of the city.”
“It goes on forever?”
“In a sense. From the perspective of an observer used to existing in three spatial dimensions it would seem…”
“Right. I am not going to ask any more questions about this stuff.”
Marco picked up his book again. “If only that were true.”
“Oh shut up!”
Time, pointedly, did not pass. But it seemed to Frankie that it did, because she was a human being with rhythms and cycles, and she ate and slept and fucked Marco and generally lived what she thought of as a fairly indolent lifestyle. She started to accept the reality of her existence, strange as it had become. She explored Ouroboros and she met more people, though every relationship was a strange one. They all knew her, either personally or by reputation. All were guarded about any details on their personal histories together though. No one would tell her what to expect, and it began to feel a bit like a conspiracy of silence. She got bored. Then she was summoned by Anders.
A dumpy Cogman that called itself Bellerophon came to find her while she was lounging around a library (having already tried and failed to find anything published after 2001), high in a tower in sight of the great spoked Conduit building, around which most of the inhabited structures seemed to cluster and which she therefore thought of as the centre of the city. Bellerophon didn’t announce itself, but she heard it clanking its way up the stairs and it waddled into the central, domed chamber she currently occupied. Books were strewn haphazardly around, some of the floor, others piled on various tables and other couches. The Cog halted when it entered and looked around, its whole head swivelling as it took in the scene. Its eye shutters closed and opened again. “This is a mess,” it said matter-of-factly – or maybe that was just the way they always talked.
“Yeah, sorry. I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Frankie Bedford.”
“I am aware.” It placed its hand on its chest. It made a gentle clunk. “I am Bellerophon.”
“Good to know you, Bella…what was it again?”
“Okay. Can I call you Bell?”
The Cog looked down at itself. Although Frankie had noticed many subtle differences in each of those she’d met so far, they shared certain commonalities, once of which was the tapering shape of their huge, bronze torsos. “That would seem appropriate.”
“All right, Bell. What can I do for you?”
“I have a summons. From Mr Versailles.”
“Who? Oh, Anders.”
“Does he want to see me right now?”
“Do you want me to answer that, Ms Bedford?”
She flung down the book she was reading. It was something by Austen but she’d found it hard to take in. “Christ, I hate this fucking place sometimes!”
“It does seem to confuse humans,” Bell admitted.
“We are creatures of time, my clockwork friend,” she said, sitting up and cracking her shoulders as she stretched. “I suppose it’s easier for you.”
It made a motion with its arms that could have been intended as a shrug and its face contorted into a Cogman’s version of a smile. “I have no frame of reference. But this is where I belong.”
“Where is Anders?”
“At the Hall of Conduits. In his office.”
She stood up and yawned expansively. “I’d better go then. Are you coming too?”
“If you would like the company, I can.”
“Sure. I’m bored of listening to my own inner monologue.”
“We do not have inner monologues,” Bell informed her.
“No. It must be interesting to have a voice in your head.”
“Well, I have no frame of reference, I suppose.” She led her clanking companion down the sweeping marble staircase. “It’s interesting that you talk at all, I suppose.”
“Why do you think so?”
“You don’t have to. You could communicate in a different way. I feel like the talking is just for our benefit.”
“That is an interesting perspective.”
“But not one you share?”
“It has often been said to me that Cogmen resemble humans. Of course, to us…”
“It’s the other way ‘round, right?”
Bell grinned. Its teeth were like little brass plaques, set out a little too neatly. “You are beginning to learn how things work around here.”
“So what do you do, Bell? When you’re not running errands for Anders.”
“I learn about humans.”
“That is why I assist Mr Versailles,” it explained, “it is a good way to meet them.”
“Is there much else for you to learn? I mean, you have eternity at your disposal. Surely you must have covered everything of interest by now.”
“There is always something new. I can never visit the Prime, so all the information I have about your ways is necessarily second-hand.”
“Anders doesn’t share his observations then?”
They paused on a landing. The library was quite high up, but as always, she felt no fatigue from the lengthy descent. “You know, from the Prime. I assume he keeps track of stuff going on. That’s how he found me.”
“Ah. No, you are mistaken. The Prime can only be observed directly by a human agent. There is no means of direct transmission. Mr Versailles is reliant on historical records.”
“Like the books.” She pointed upwards.
“Yes. I will help you to tidy them up before he sees, if you wish.”
“Will he be angry?”
Bell seemed to give that some thought. “He is not often angry but, in fairness, I have never seen the library in that much of a mess before.”
“We’ll play it by ear, Bell.”