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art by Junior McLean

The Ambiguity Clock

They caught up with him at last on the edge of Soi Cowboy. He'd been running for some time: a doll-repair shop in Nong Khai on the Mekong river, a stint in Vientiane--he'd dumped his last ID, changed his node in a back-street warez lab in Kunming and fled, fled across Laos and into Thailand, into Issan: where nothing ever happened, and one could--almost--disappear.
They came for him nevertheless, as he knew they would, and he fled again, at last trying to hide himself in Bangkok, the city masking him, the hum of its endless electronics, wireless signals, radio and telephone and optics, cables and satellites all acting to hide one single human in that vast digital space--but they found him again and he had to run.
Bangkok, eleven o'clock at night: Soi Cowboy a street of loud music, loud laughs, pheromone generators pumping their wares into the atmosphere, truflesh dolls dancing, men walking with glazed eyes and happy smiles--all but for the two who were following him.
Kunming Toads.
He had pushed his way past sex tourists on a mission from God, past the calm-eyed bouncers at each truflesh establishment, past Lebanese businessmen in a sheesha emporium and Japanese reality-porn junkies watching a show, past neon and chrome and glass and bamboo, searching for a way out, knowing there wasn't one.
The pursuers: neckless men in custom-tailored black suits from the workshops of Hoi An, all Vietnamese silk and workmanship, but the men were not Vietnamese. They might have been called fat but they were not that, either, not exactly: they were large and round and looked like two very menacing toads--the poisonous kind.
They caught up with him down an alleyway where kids were selling Plateau and H and truth serum, uppers and downers and each other. In the darkness they inflated, their skin turning a darker green, and he knew there was no way out. Yunnan Toads, from the Chinese labs, amphibian and reptilian and good at what they did. A long tongue hissed by his ear. "Management want to have a word."
He preferred London or the moon but they gave him the Triangle of Gold, for his sins. He had journalist tags but he rarely filed copy. He did the agricultural expert routine for a while; a development agency stint that came to nothing; irrigation consultant; the usual cover stories.
"You know you can't break a contract." Management, speaking via microwave link or cable--anything but satellite, he knew that much at least. "Your conduct was disappointing."
They'd brought him into a freak clinic. Outside it was still Soi Cowboy, more or less. On the regular menu:
Synth- or truflesh dolls: Male, Female or Other (katoi for the truflesh in that last category, pseudo-alien physiologies in the latter).
A drug course including aphrodisiac of choice, an upper (usually cheap street speed or MDMA, more expensive options extra), a downer (house hash was the popular choice), air-conditioned rooms, window extra--space was at a premium here.
But in a freak clinic there was no menu. It was custom-jobs only. They took pride in that.
He waited them out. Disapprovingly: "We had to send a drone to finish the job."
"They were babies!"
Management tsked. "Drones are expensive."
Tentacle-junkies flopping in birthing pools in the small rooms--the Toads peered in as they passed them and made the strange hissing sounds of what must have been their laughter. Now they waited outside and he was alone in the room, no beds or windows or birthing pools, nothing but a voice coming out of nowhere. "We'll have to deduct it from your wages."
He said, "I quit."
"Nobody quits."
Sweating, an air-con unit on the wall blowing in hot air. "I don't want another job."
Management, with a note of finality: "But we have one for you."
From Bangkok to Laos and the city of Luang Namtha, a sleeping town in a rice-green valley, a four-lane highway criss-crossing it like a wound, linking China on one side and Thailand on the other, goods and cargo flowing through like blood cells.
There to meet with his contact--
"We need you for technical backup," they'd told him in Bangkok. "Nothing to worry about. Simple retrieval mission, in your old hunting grounds."
"Don't make me go back there."
Luang Namtha blinked sleepy eyes at the sunlight, but he found a café and ordered breakfast. Businesspeople, backpackers, the black monks of Udom Xai. Two guys who came out of a World Food Programme four-wheel drive were consuming the sort of food that didn't make it to the villages: bacon and bread and butter and jam, coffee and banana pancakes, eggs cooked sunny-side-up and he thought, well, look on the sunny side.
He was still alive.
"Don't make me go back there," he'd told them in Bangkok. There: the Shwe-Tri gan, that lawless land where Burma met Laos and Thailand.
The Triangle of Gold.
Drug labs, black warez, Chinese nano-goo gone bad, Vietnamese battle dolls discarded, American War unexploded ordnances, elephants, people, plants: the jungle.
The fucking jungle.
"Don't make me go back there," he'd told them, and they said, almost apologetically: "There's this thing we'd rather like to get hold of, you see."
"What thing?" he said, and they said, "Oh, it's just an old ambiguity clock."
A figure slid into the chair beside him. Grey-haired Han Chinese, dark shades, nice suit. He said, "Mozart."
"Long time."
"Not long enough..." he said, staring at the man, remembering...
In a business where people had no names, Mozart had an ident tag that lasted. Mozart, the clean-up guy: he'd tidied up the mess after the Boss Gui fiasco in Kunming, he'd done post-op sanitation on the Shangri-La affair--he wasn't an op guy, he was post-ops and he shouldn't have been there in Luang Namtha.
Mozart laughed. "You my backup?"
"Why are you involved?"
"Long story," Mozart said, ordering noodle soup for breakfast. "This really is more of a clean up job, you see. An old operation that didn't quite get finished. Been sitting in the files for a while..."
"Damn it, Mozart, what's an ambiguity clock?"
Mozart gave him an indulgent look and lit up a cigarette. It was of the high-density data-coded type--Smoke a Cigarette, Get a Rush of Knowledge. The nano-particles in the cigarette traveled through the throat into the lungs and bloodstream, tiny machines carrying instructions you hoped would never go wrong. Everyone knew smoking was bad for you. He'd once seen a man take a drag on a cigarette from a packet that had been subverted: the machines converted his mass from the inside, turning him into a bloodied sculpture that lived for two whole days in pain before shutting down.
Mozart looked at him sideways, took another pull on the cigarette, and said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world: "It measures ambiguity."
They took a 4x4 down the Chinese-built road to the Thai border but didn't cross there. Farther downstream along the river there was a village where he'd been before. They did a little smuggling--H, black warez, synth- and tru-flesh, sometimes. Whatever made its way from the jungle on the other side. They dumped the rental, crossed the river, and were into the trees by the next morning.
"Piece of cake," Mozart said.
Which is when things began to go very wrong.
"What's that thing up ahead?" he had asked. Mozart had paused and his shades changed, became reflective--bloody Mozart in bloody mirrorshades. "Move back," he said. He was standing very still. "Slowly."
He began to say, "What is it?" but then he saw it too, and--
It had looked like just another ridge in the hilly ground but suddenly the thing moved, black earth rising upwards and a long, green-brown body emerged, as large as an underwater cable--
"A snakeopath," he whispered.
"I can take it!"
The snakeopath had sensed them, and was flowing forward, fast. No one had ever admitted to creating snakeopaths. Perhaps they evolved, semi-naturally, out of all the other bad things in the jungle--a hafmek creature, organo-digital: and predatory.
"Run," he whispered, but Mozart wasn't listening. He leaped ahead, augmented body performing Qinggong that should have been impossible in standard Earth gravity. Who knows, he thought, dazed--perhaps Mozart was implanted with graviton-boosters. Or maybe he was just mad.
Qinggong--what the Chinese called The Ability of Lightness. Like a Wushu warrior from a dozen HK films, Mozart leaped in the air, black suit immaculate, mirrorshades hiding his eyes, and a blade flashed in his hand--
He fell down gracefully on the snakeopath, the blade slashed rapidly once, twice--
The snakeopath reared, hissed--its hood opened, and three dozen eyes opened, blinking, as the blade slashed at them--
The snakeopath screamed, and he felt the ground shake. Mozart leaped up in the air again, almost as if he were running on clouds, though there were none--and the snakeopath lashed out, one end rising high into the air and swatting Mozart aside, hard, slamming him down to the ground. He watched, still unable to move, as the snakeopath's wounded head descended on Mozart's body and the head shuddered, dozens of blinded eyes weeping tears that ran down and fell on Mozart--
For a moment he had the feeling the snakeopath was smiling. Then it raised its head, the hood closed over the wounded eyes, and the great long body slithered away.
"There's a city," Mozart said. He was lying on the ground. The shades had melted over his eyes. "Listen." His breathing was shallow. Acid had burned through his skin and blood was pooling around his head like a dark halo. "I've been trying to find it. Over and over. It's not... not easy."
"What do you mean you've been trying to find it? What happened the last time?"
It seemed as though Mozart tried to smile. perhaps it was only a grimace. "Died," he said. "Every time... dead. Son of a bitch."
It wasn't clear who he was talking about.
"Backed up at the Yunnan labs... me-clones like a row of suits. Send... another one. Soon. Can't find it--place knows I'm looking. Kills... kills me, every time."
He backed away from Mozart, stared down. "Why can't you find it?"
Again, that ghost smile from Mozart. "Ambiguity clock."
"What the hell am I supposed to do?"
"Find it. Your... your brief is the same."
"How do I find something that can't be found?" and he thought--what city in the jungle?
"Cut... cut me open. You'll have to reach through the... through the eye socket. There's a tracer. Of sorts. It might help."
"What's in the city?" he said.
"The clock."
"What does it do?"
"I already... told you. It measures... measures ambiguity. This hurts."
"Well, you can die in a minute. Tell me what I need to know."
"Space-time ambiguities--difficult to explain. Measures levels... quantum ambiguity... Management wants it bad... funded project... lost it. Agents dead... I need water."
He dribbled water into Mozart's mouth. The man's face was turning grey, the acid scars growing. Soon there'd be nothing left but a skull and some melted skin. "Thanks. Was supposed to do... do clean-up job. Failed."
"How many times?"
"Don't know. I think... close to one hundred."
He stared at the dying man. "You died a hundred times?"
"Not me. Clones... before me. Mozart never dies."
"What do I do if I find it?"
"Bring it... back."
Later, he had to dig into the man's skull, going through the melted shades and the eye socket to reach the small black device. He held it in his palm, weighed it, and wondered. Then he threw it away.
"Fuck that," he said.
Trying to find the way out he found the jungle keeping him in.
He'd left Mozart lying on the ground. There had been ants crawling over the body when he'd gone. The ants moved slowly, cautiously, tiny mechanical bodies methodically dismantling the corpse. Maintenance-ants, used on the ships and the Martian colonies--some early experimental prototype that didn't quite work and got dumped in the Shwe-Tri gan. Their mound looked like a miniature factory, rising from the ground. He didn't want to know what lay below, or what use they would find for Mozart.
He didn't like the idea of a hundred other dead Mozarts lying all about the forest.
He didn't like the idea of trying to find a city that couldn't be found, but in trying to leave, discovered that he couldn't.
The second night camping he was attacked by a goo-creature, an amorphous thing that had oozed into his hollow and tried to absorb him--he had grabbed a burning stick from the fire and warded the goo-creature away, but it had left him shaken. There had been no more snakeopaths and in fact the forest seemed remarkably quiet--too quiet. A week into his trek he saw a band of what must have been Vietnamese battle dolls pass like ghosts through the trees. They looked like children, small, lithe figures blending in with their surroundings. If he saw them they must have meant him to.
It occurred to him they might be watching out for him.
Which made him worry even more.
Tracking didn't work in the Shwe-Tri gan. Satellite comms didn't get through--nothing did. It was a black digital hole, filled with its own incomprehensible white noise. There were things in the forest....
It occurred to him that here, at least, Management couldn't get hold of him. Somehow, the thought wasn't reassuring.
They'd be sending another Mozart, he thought. Another clean-up job--but who cleans after the cleaners? He laughed, and realized he might be losing his mind.
He had liberated Mozart's cigarette pack. There had been a dozen left. He tried one, choking as the rush of encrypted data entered his bloodstream and went to his brain. Wushu techniques, Lunar settlement blueprints, profiles of prominent Martian Chinese--assassination targets? Had Mozart ever been off-world?--Golden Triangle trivia--nano-goo specs, the social structure of wild battle droid colonies, the anthropology of combat dolls--all the while the little machines were running through him and when he pissed against a tree he pissed a stream of discarded machines, too small to see.
It rained a lot, and sometimes it was black rain, data clouds pouring down on him with unsettling visions, wild nanotech-encoded water absorbed into his skin, giving him visions, nightmares--somewhere in the jungle there was a city that didn't want to be found--or did it?
An Ambiguity Clock. It came to him with the wild black rains, in drips and drops. Measuring quantum ambiguity, fluctuations in space-time that may allow the exploitation of certain rare entwined-particle clouds--gateways, doors--pictures in his mind that made no sense, things slipping through cracks in the jungle floor, disappearing forever--two suns above a red sky, an arid lunar surface in another, a row of maintenance ants crawling under a silver light, a stark line of shade--
It was not good to drink the black rain but he did, and it made him worse, but still he kept going, thinking he could find his way back to the river, find one of the hidden labs, find something.
Then he noticed that the foliage began to change. Adaptoplant grew more abundant in this part of the jungle, few at first, growing more numerous. At first only disconcerting hints: half a chimney growing out of a tree, a melted door hanging like overripe fruit from a branch, empty light fixtures on a tree trunk that blinked at him hungrily as he passed them.
Then more and more: organic living rooms and kitchens, sewers and piping rising out of the ground, forming dwellings in which no one ever lived.
He realized then he was passing through the suburbs of a city, and laughed. It became harder to walk: scrambling over adaptoplant piping and chimneys rising from the ground and windows that opened onto nothing. He climbed through a budding kitchen with a misshapen table growing out of the floor, through a window into a door that led at an angle to a semi-grown cellar which led to a sewage pipe which led to--
On and on and on.
The lost city grew all around him, adaptoplant towers and avenues with sprinkler flowers and drooping street lamps that turned their heads to follow the sun, of cable-snakes and maintenance ants and windows that were eyes and doors that were mouths. Somewhere it must have had a centre, a ground zero, the root of the city. He ate light-bulb fruit and tapestry vines and drank the sweet-sickly juice that came sluicing, sometimes, from the tap-fronds.
At last he came to a place where the avenues met, where doors growing high above cast down massive shadows, where pipes grew in a tangled mess like weeds, and fans swirled lazily in the breeze.
He came to a palace, growing out of the ground. There were no doors. Did he hear a ticking sound, emerging like the beating of a slow heart from inside?
It was very quiet there, in the square before the palace. He saw goo-creatures slinking through the undergrowth of living carpets. An old war drone buzzed overhead, coming to land on a tap vine. He began to climb the palace, finding purchase in living, pulsating drainage pipes. The structure seemed to breathe, its surface warm to the touch. He climbed, going higher, holding on to doorknobs and windowsills and pulling himself up on cable-vines. Higher and higher he climbed, and all the while the beating sound of a clock, a heart, called to him from inside.
At last he gained the roof. Breathing heavily, he stopped, and looked out at the jungle. It was very quiet on the roof, peaceful, he thought. He no longer remembered what name he was born with. There had been so many, over the years... but here it seemed not to matter, somehow.
It was only when he turned away from the view that he realized he was no longer alone.
Mozart, in mirrorshades, standing on the roof.
He said, "You're dead."
Mozart inched his head. "I remember you," he said. Then he smiled. "Come," he said. He gestured with his hands and the roof seemed to open around him, a mouth opening below their feet, and they both descended, gliding down a wet, sloping tunnel. Down into the roots of the building.
"Management send you?"
They were standing in a sub-basement. The beating of the invisible heart seemed to grow stronger here.
"Yes..." he didn't know what to say. "Which one are you?"
"I'm... me. Have there been others?"
"You died.... I came with you, looking for the city. You died.... a snakeopath got you."
"They sent me to clean up. They never properly understood.... You can't find the clock by looking for it."
"How did you find it?"
Mozart laughed. "The same way you did. I tried to get away."
"They grabbed me in Bangkok," he said. "There had been an operation..."
"There always are," Mozart said. "Its nice to know Bangkok is still there."
"Everything is still there."
"Everything is here," Mozart said. "What matters, at least. What do you want?"
The question caught him by surprise. What did he want? He had spent so long running away.... He looked into the man's dark shades, in the place his eyes should have been. He knew then that he could remain there, live the rest of his days in that city even Management couldn't find. He would be safe there--he would be free.
"Yes," Mozart said. "It is good you came. I have been waiting, for someone... someone like you. I've been waiting a long time, now."
"Waiting for what?"
"For someone," Mozart said, and shrugged. "Someone to watch the clock."
He looked away from the man then, his eyes scanning the dark sub-basement, cable roots growing out of the ground, the faded outlines of semi-formed washing machines... and he saw it.
It was a grey shadow at the heart of the room, a fungus growing out of the ground. It seemed to pulsate with the beating of his own heart. The air above it seemed to shimmer, to show impossible vistas--or perhaps he was just tired, and was seeing things that weren't there. When he looked again it was hard to find it--the clock was both there and not. He couldn't even tell if it truly was a machine, or just another thing growing wild in the jungle.
"I will," he said, answering an unasked question. Suddenly he felt very light. Almost as if he had learned Qinggong. Mozart nodded, once.
"Does it work?" he asked. He stared at the clock. Suddenly he had to know. "Has it ever worked?"
"Who knows?" Mozart said.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 22nd, 2011
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