Clockwork Universe – Chapter 6

It was 1996. November. In a field somewhere in England. Raining. Frankie adjusted the hood on her jacket, but it made no difference to the relentless pitter-patter of the raindrops. She sighed. “You know,” she said, “I did sort of imagine that the life of a time-hopping secret agent would be more…”

“Glamorous?”  Marco asked with a grin.


He was knee deep in a trench they’d spent most of the morning digging. This was – she counted off – her seventh trip back to the Prime so far, and the first time she’d gone into what she still thought of as the past. She’d never been to England before. It was about what she’d imagined though.

“Is it the rain?”

“The rain is not winning me over.”

“You’re from the Pacific Northwest, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but this is different. It’s just so…grey.”

“It’s England.”

“I thought they only put this on for the tourists.”

“Nope.” He set his shovel to one side and caught his breath. “Are you going to help or not?”

“I helped a lot earlier. Why are we even doing this?”

“We’re looking for a coin.”

“A coin? Wouldn’t we have more luck in a city or something?”

“It’s an old coin.”

“Fucking hell.” She hopped down into the trench again and stabbed at the ground with the edge of her spade, dislodging a few clods of moist earth. “And you can’t be any more exact about where we might find this coin?”

“Afraid not.”

“Despite knowing the future?”

“You know it’s not that straightforward, Frankie.”

“When is it ever?” She set to, and gradually they widened and deepened the trench. They found nothing but rocks and earthworms. “So,” she said, “this is the past, huh?”

“To you, yes.”

“Right. So…1996? I’d have been…um…I’d have not long ago graduated from college.”


“That means that I exist, now, over in Portland. Working in a coffee shop.”

“If you say so.”

“So what’s to stop me getting on a plane and flying to America and meeting myself?”

“Apart from the fact that the nearest airport is about thirty miles away, you have no means of transport, you don’t have a valid passport or access to a bank account with sufficient funds to afford the flight?”

“All right, smartass. Yes, apart from those practical issues, what’s to stop me?”

He straightened again. “Let me ask you this: do you remember meeting an older version of yourself when you were working in a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon in 1996?”

“Obviously not.”

“Well then.”

“Fucking circular argument,” she muttered, shoving her spade into the ground again.

“You know how these things work by now.”

“One day I’ll find a question you don’t have some wiseass answer for.”

“Oh, I’m certain of that.”

“What about, like, conservation of matter?”

“What about it?”

“There are two of me in the universe at the moment.”


“So where do the atoms that make up this me come from? They just popped into existence when I arrived or something? Doesn’t that violate some sort of fundamental physical property of existence?”

“I suppose it might do. But you’re thinking linearly again. You’re imagining there was some original version of reality that proceeded as you believe it did – with you going about your business in 1996 – and that now you’re running through those same events with the addition of your future self here in England. But this is the one and only November 1996, and it has always had two of you in it.”

“For fuck’s sake.”


“Hey, is this what you’re looking for?” Frankie stopped down and pulled out a discoloured, irregular disc. She wiped it off and turned it over. One side showed a fairly crude effigy of a man’s head, surmounted by some letters that looked to her like Latin. “What is this, Roman?”

“That’s right.” He knelt beside her and picked up the coin. “Want to know why we just dug this up?”


“You know what I mean. Want to know what happens to this coin?”

“You’re actually going to tell me?”

He held it out. “This innocuous little object has a big effect on the future. You see, we’re about to put this somewhere else in this field.”

“What a great use of our ability to travel through time, Marco.”

“In about four years, an amateur archaeologist will be walking through this field and the exposed edge of this coin will catch his eye. He’ll dig it out and recognise it for what it is. As a result, this entire area will be turned into an archaeological excavation site, and a previously unknown Roman fortification will be discovered.”


“At the same time,” he continued, “a developer will be planning to run a new road right through here. The plans are made before the coin is discovered. A local politician will lead a campaign to preserve the site. Things will get nasty. The developer will be found to have extensively bribed various lawmakers over a number of years. It will cause political scandal and a great deal of upheaval. The local politician will make a name for herself and become a force in her party, eventually rising to one of the highest offices in the land.”

“Because of this coin?”

“Because of lots of things, but it starts with the coin. If it stays here, it’s never found, and none of those things happen.”

“Now who’s thinking linearly?”

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t know that those things wouldn’t all happen anyway.”

“We know the coin gets discovered.”

“Right, but how can you know for certain that’s the catalyst?”

“All we know is how history unfolds. The coin is the beginning.”

“But you could say that about anything. By the same token, we could move something that persuaded one of…I don’t know…one of the politicians to take bribes or whatever, and then they don’t take the bribe and then all that stuff happens in a different way. It’s like,” she pointed at the coin, “that saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome’, right? They do, but only if you’re going to Rome. It’s…uh…what’s the word? Tauto…tauto…”


She snapped her fingers. “Yeah. That. Like, ‘shaped like itself’. You follow events back to one of the causes, like following a road to one place and concluding that that’s the only place the journey could have ended.”

Marco looked down at the dirty coin. “That’s actually a very astute analogy.”

“Thank you.”


Frankie laughed and stood up. “Nonetheless, we plant the coin. That’s what happened. What will be will be.”


“Such a succinct turn of phrase you have, Ms Bedford.”

She turned, alarmed, to see a woman standing beside the trench. She was holding a gun. “Whoa, what the fuck?”

Marco stood up slowly. “Well,” he said.

“Well indeed.” The woman was tall, dressed entirely in black. She had high cheekbones and a sour expression. Frankie took an instant dislike to her, but that could’ve been down to the gun she had pointed at her.

Frankie raised her hands tentatively. Marco remained resolutely calm. “I’m guessing,” she said, “you’re not the farmer’s wife, annoyed that we’ve dug up this field?”

The woman lifted a manicured eyebrow. “That’s correct. Come on, out of there, both of you. Don’t make me ask twice.”

“You’re not going to kill us,” Marco said calmly.

“You don’t think so?”

“I know so.”

“Why’s that?” She sounded amused.

“Because I know I don’t die today.”

“Ah yes, of course. Good old time-traveller immunity. You know you survive, because someone who knows your future told you so.”

“Something like that.”

“Such a shame that information was conveyed by a fallible human. It never seems to occur to any of you that someone might just lie.”

“I trust the person who told me.”

“I know. That was your first mistake. Or your last, depending on your perspective.” She pulled the trigger, there was a loud bang, and Marco dropped to his knees, clutching at his stomach, blood spilling from between his fingers. Frankie stared down at him. “Sorry, dear,” said the woman, “you’ll see him again. That’s the wonderful thing about all this business.”


“I suppose that rather pulled the rug out from under you. Not quite so omniscient as they appear, are they?”

“You shot him…”

“Yes. But if it’s any consolation, I was always going to.”

“But…” She wanted to drop down and cradle him, try to stop the bleeding, try to save him, but she couldn’t move now. Her legs were rooted to the spot and she felt real fear for the first time since she’d been on that plane. She could die. Marco had been wrong. “I can’t…I can’t…”

“Oh stop it. I told you you’ll see him again. He’s come to the end of his ‘continuity of experience’”, she loaded the expression with contempt, “but he still exists, elsewhere in time and space. You could fill a hundred lifetimes with all the extra time that one’s accrued.”

“But it won’t be him…the him he is…was…now.”

“Believe me, Ms Bedford, you’ll get over it. Now, out of the trench, please. I’m sure you’re aware that I won’t shoot you, but how much can you really trust to anything now, eh? Best to just assume you’re as powerless as you were before all this started. Whatever the fuck that means. Snapper, please.”

Numbly, Frankie removed her bracelet and gave it to the woman. “All this over a coin?” she asked.

“A coin? Oh. That. It’s nothing to do with that. Here.” She knelt down, not moving the gun away from Frankie, and took the coin from the still, bloodied hands of Marco. With a snort, she hurled it in a seemingly random direction. “There we go. Ready to be found.”

“What about…”

“The snapper will take care of the body. The trench will just be a little mystery. The world is full of them, and it’s almost always to do with some sort of time travel nonsense. God, if people only knew the mess things are in, they’d never stand for it.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Isabella.”

“Who are you working for?”

“No one. I’m part of a group of…shareholders…who have certain aims in common.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not going to stand here in a muddy field in Nowhereshire, England telling you my whole fucking backstory, Ms Bedford. You’ll come with me. I have a car waiting.”

“You can’t do this.”

“I can. I will. I do. This is the past, Ms Bedford. What will be has been.”

She stared down at Marco’s lifeless body. “I barely knew him…”

“You knew him plenty. And you’ll get to know him better. Really, this mourning is not you, Frankie.”

She whirled angrily. “And how would you know that?”

“Oh, how do you think, you silly cow?” Then she lashed out with the pistol, catching Frankie on the side of the head. She stumbled and then fell onto the damp grass as everything turned black.


“Untethered? What do you mean by that?”

Frankie motioned with her hands. “Just, sort of, adrift. Disconnected. You know.”

Marco shrugged languidly and ran his fingers through her hair. “I know what the word means. But how do you mean it?”

“I’ve been back to the Prime a few times now, and every time I go I don’t feel more connected to it, but less. Is that normal?”

“I never said you’d feel more connected to the Prime.”

“I just thought being back would be more…normal.”

“You don’t belong to that place any more, Frankie. You’ll never have a life there.”

She lay back on the bed they shared, pulling the sheets up around herself again. “I guess I knew that already, on some level. It’s just a strange thought to have. I mean, I might as well have died on that plane.”

“Dead people can’t do this.” He leant down and kissed her.

“True, true,” she admitted after a few moments. “But, how did you deal with this?”

“With what?”

She hit him playfully on his naked chest. “With this disconnect! This unetherdness!”

“I’m not sure that’s a word in any time period…”

“Come on, Marco.”

He fell back beside her. “You want the honest truth?”


“The world I came from wasn’t one I ever felt very tethered to. I was young when I left and I spent most of my life suffering. It was an unkind age, compared to where you come from.”


“It’s all right. For me, coming to Ouroboros and being part of this was the moment my life really started. I’ve never had any regrets.”

“It’s not regret exactly…”

“You know, there actually might be someone you could talk to about this,” Marco said.


He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Yes. I can probably arrange it. You’ll need a translator though.”

“A translator?”

“He doesn’t speak English.”

“I know a little German, if that helps.”

“No. No, he doesn’t speak any language you’ve heard of, I’m afraid.”

“He doesn’t?”

“His language doesn’t exist in your time. And yours didn’t yet exist in his.”

She turned over in bed. “How old is this person?”

“You know that’s a relative question. But the time period in which he lived was…a very, very long time ago. About as long ago as it’s possible to get here.”


“I’ll try to set it up for you.”


It was her friend Bell who would volunteer to serve as translator, having mastered many human languages, including the one used by this mysterious individual. It clanked along beside her as they went to find him, entering a part of the city she hadn’t been to before. It was as still as ever, silent save for the faint sound of distant mechanisms and their own hushed voices.

“Do you know this man?” Frankie asked the Cog.

“We have conversed on a number of occasions. That is how I know his language.”

“And what language is it?”

“The name would be meaningless to you. It was unknown in your time, as I understand it.”


“Lost to history, as is the case with many such ancient tongues. It was spoken by only a small number of communities and they left no real linguistic legacy. It is related to some languages known from fragments in your time, belonging to early Sumerian groups.”

“Sumerian… That’s, like, the Middle-East, right?”

“In your time the region was known as Iraq. It is called by antiquarians Mesopotamia, although no one who lived there contemporaneously would have understood that name.”

“So this guy is old.”

“In your dating system, I believe he lived in the 5th Millennium BC. 7,000 years before you,” he added helpfully.

“Fucking hell.”

“Well quite.”

“There’s so much history here,” she said, looking up at the high buildings that flanked the wide causeway they walked down, “first-hand accounts of eras that people from my time have forgotten, or don’t even know existed. And it’s recorded, isn’t it?”

“Much of it,” Bell admitted.

“It’s such a resource.”

“You feel it is misused?”

“I don’t know. Not exactly. I just feel like speaking to this guy is kind of wasted on someone like me. I don’t know anything about the time he’s from.”

“There are a lot of things here in Ouroboros that would radically change things for the Prime were they more widely known,” Bell pointed out, “not least the ability to access different time periods. I do not pretend to understand all the limitations placed on these resources by Mr Versailles and the others, but it seems to me that it would cause great upheaval if more than a tiny percentage of humans were made aware of the truth. You yourself struggle to reconcile the knowledge you have with your understanding of causality, do you not?”


They found the object of their quest sitting beside a fountain, idly trailing one hand in the water. He was a short man with thick, dark hair and a curled beard. He wore a simple, undyed tunic and had no shoes. He looked up when they approached and said something to Bell. The Cogman bent slightly and replied in what Frankie assumed was the same language. It held out one jointed hand to her and said a few more words. She caught her name in one of the unfamiliar strings of phonemes. The man tilted his head and held a hand to his chest while looking at her intently.

“What do I do?” she asked Bell.

“The same. It is a greeting.”

“Hello,” she said, mirroring his pose. “How are you?”

“His name is Dep.”


“Yes. Is that a problem?”

“It just doesn’t sound like a name.”

“In fairness, Frankie, your name does not sound like a name in his language either. And his did come first…”

“Fine. Can you translate for me?”

“That is why I am here, Frankie.”

“It’s good to meet you, Dep. May I sit?”

“He says that is fine.”

“Thank you.” She sat on the edge of the fountain beside him. He smiled at her and bobbed his head encouragingly. “Um. So, I don’t know how much you know about why I’m here. Marco said you might be someone who could help me?”

“I know Marco. He is a good man. Are you his friend?”

“I’m…yes, we’re friends. Listen, I’m kind of new here, if that makes sense. And I’m still getting used to some things. I’m feeling…untethered. Like I don’t know who I am. Because I’m adrift from the time and place I come from. I’m lost.”

Bell slowly translated her halting explanation and Dep listened intently, frowning slightly at what were perhaps unfamiliar concepts. “I think I understand. Of all the people in this city, I am the most lost.” He smiled as he said that.

“How so?”

“When I lived in the Prime, I was a goat herder. I lived in a village in the hills. The world was smaller then, for everyone; not just me. When I was ten-years-old, my father took me down to the plains to trade the cheese we made. I saw my first city. You must understand that, at that time, nothing like this had existed before in the world. The walls were made of mud bricks and stood twice the height of my father. I had never seen anything so astonishing. No one had. Hundreds of people lived in that one place: more people than I had ever seen before. At its heart was a temple, a mound of packed sand and stone that stood even higher than the walls. I had never known that people could build things as large. In my mind, it seemed to rival the hills where we lived. I had no words to express the things I saw. They were new. Everything was new.” At this point, Bell adjusted its stance slightly to address Frankie more directly. “I believe the settlement Dep is referring to may have been the original nucleus of a later Sumerian city-state. Unfortunately, from his limited recall of the geography of the region, it is impossible to say which one. In any case, he is a direct link to one of the earliest examples of settled human cultures that gave rise to civilisation as you understand it.”

“Thanks, Bell.”

Dep had continued talking, and Bell seemed to have no issues catching up with its translation. Cogs were apparently good at multitasking. “My life in my homeland was short. Few people lived longer than forty years. It was a hard, dangerous place. I had eight sons and six daughters who lived past their first year. My wives and I were blessed. But one season the flat lands flooded and destroyed the fields around the city. Many people starved and the hungry people came into the hills to take our herds. We fought them and drove them away, but an axe pierced me.” He motioned as he spoke, running his hand over an old, jagged scar that webbed across his shoulder. “The wound festered, and I knew I would die. A man came to the village and gave me a bracelet that he said would save my life, but that I must go to heaven and dwell with the gods. That seemed a fair bargain to me.”

“And that was how you were brought here? The bracelet was a snapper, right?”

Dep tilted his head slightly, in what Frankie recognised was his version of a nod. “I had never seen a wall taller than two men, and I came to this place.” He gestured around him at the towers and domes that surrounded them. “I did not know what I was looking at. I had no language for it, just as I had not the first time I came to the city as a boy. It took a long time for me to understand. I saw that I was one single voice at the beginning of a story that stretched uncounted lifetimes into the future. The world I had lived in was just a foundation stone of civilisations that would take people across the lands and seas, into the skies and beyond. Eventually, I saw these things with my own eyes. But the man who saved me was right: I had to give up the life I had before.”

“Right, because everyone thought you were dead. Your life back in your village was over.”

Dep made an odd face as Bel translated his words. “No. Have you been to the Conduits? Yes, of course you have. You know about the continuity differentials then; that each Conduit gives access to a moving point in spacetime that proceeds at a non-standard rate.”

Many of the words Dep was saying were in English. Of course, his language wouldn’t have its own words for these types of things. They would have been wholly outside his people’s experience or understanding. She remembered her conversations about the mechanics of the Conduits with Marco and Lydia. “The end point of each Conduit moves forward through time,” she recalled, “and you can’t go back to before the start of human civilisation. So if you lived at that point, any Conduit that would take you back to your own era would eventually have just moved past it and into your future.”

“Yes. So my time, the places and people that were familiar to me, are no longer accessible to me. They are as remote from me as the past would be to someone living solely in the Prime. I am adrift. I have no place. My knowledge is of little use. I have completed my tasks.”

“Wow. I’m sorry.”

He made another unfamiliar face. Resignation? Acceptance? It was astonishing to think of the gulf of language and culture that separated them. “When it became clear that all that was once familiar to me would be lost, Anders gave me a choice: to return, and live out a life with my descendants, or to remain and find some purpose in this eternity, as the Cogmen do.”

“And you chose to stay?”

“I had spent so long outside of time, seeing things and doing things I could never even have dreamed of, that I knew I could not go back to the village in the hills. Not while knowing what was to come. I had changed too much. I had become a native of Ouroboros, and this is where I belong. It is common to feel lost when you first arrive here; to wonder what your future holds, when in fact all of time is already set out like the pieces on a board, with every move already known. The only consolation I can offer is that there are some things that will not change: this place, the people here, are as you are now. Timeless and immortal. If there is a thing or person here to which you can tether yourself, something solid to hold onto in the storm of pasts and futures colliding in impossible ways, you must grab them as soon as you can. Only through that will you find peace.”

Frankie nodded, understanding. “Thank you, Dep. I think I’ve already found what I need.”

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

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