'I can't hear anything!' said Lobsang. 'Not hear, feel. Coming up through your sandals? Oops, there goes another one... and another. You can't feel it? That one's... that's old Sixty-Six, they've never got it properly balanced. We'll hear them in a minute... Oh dear. Look at the flowers. Do look at the flowers!' Lobsang turned. The ice plants were opening. The field sowthistle was closing. 'Time-leak,' said Lu-Tze. 'Hark at that! You can hear them now, eh? They're dumping time randomly! Come on!'
According to the Second Scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised, Wen the Eternally Surprised sawed the first Procrastinator from the trunk of a wamwam tree, carved certain symbols on it, fitted it with a bronze spindle and summoned the apprentice, Clodpool. 'Ah. Very nice, master,' said Clodpool. 'A prayer wheel, yes?'
'No, this is nothing like as complex,' said Wen. 'It merely stores and moves time.'
'That simple, eh?'
'And now I shall test it,' said Wen. He gave it a half-turn with his hand. 'Ah. Very nice, master,' said Clodpool. 'A prayer wheel, yes?'
'No, this is nothing like as complex,' said Wen. 'It merely stores and moves time.'
'That simple, eh?'
'And now I shall test it,' said Wen. He moved it a little less this time. 'That simple, eh?'
'And now I shall test it,' said Wen. This time he twisted it gently to and fro. 'That si-si-si That simple-ple, eh eheh simple, eh?' said Clodpool. 'And I have tested it,' said Wen. 'It worked, master?'
'Yes, I think so.' Wen stood up. 'Give me the rope that you used to carry the firewood. And... yes, a pit from one of those cherries you picked yesterday.' He wound the frayed rope around the cylinder and tossed the pit onto a patch of mud. Clodpool jumped out of the way. 'See those mountains?' said Wen, tugging the rope. The cylinder spun and balanced there, humming gently. 'Oh yes, master,' said Clodpool obediently. There was practically nothing up here but mountains; there were so many that sometimes they were impossible to see; because they got in the way. 'How much time does stone need?' said Wen. 'Or the deep sea? We shall move it' - he placed his left hand just above the spinning blur - 'to where it is needed.' He looked down at the cherry pit. His lips moved silently, as though he was working through some complex puzzle. Then he pointed his right hand at the pit.
'Stand back,' he said, and gently let a finger touch the cylinder. There was no sound except the crack of the air as it moved aside, and a hiss of steam from the mud. Wen looked up at the new tree, and smiled. 'I did say you should stand back,' he said. 'I, er, I shall get down now, then, shall I?' said a voice among the blossom-laden branches. 'But carefully,' said Wen, and sighed as Clodpool crashed down in a shower of petals. 'There will always be cherry blossom here,' he said. Lu-Tze hitched up his robe and scurried back down the path. Lobsang ran after him. A high- pitched whine seemed to be coming out of the rocks. The sweeper skidded at the carp pond, which was now erupting in strange waves, and headed down a shady track alongside a stream. Red ibises erupted into flight- He stopped, and threw himself flat on the paving slabs. 'Get down now!' But Lobsang was already headlong. He heard something pass overhead with a plangent sound. He looked back and saw the last ibis tumbling in the air, shrinking, shedding feathers, surrounded by a halo of pale blue light. It squawked and vanished with a 'pop'. Not vanished entirely. An egg followed the same trajectory for a few seconds, and then smashed on the stones. 'Random time! Come on, come on!' shouted Lu-Tze. He scrambled to his feet again, headed towards an ornamental grille in the cliff face ahead of them, and with surprising strength wrenched it out of the wall. 'It's a bit of a drop but if you roll when you land you'll be okay,' he said, lowering himself into the hole. 'Where does it go to?'
'The Procrastinators, of course!'
'But novices aren't allowed in there on pain of death!'
'That's a coincidence,' said Lu-Tze, lowering himself to the tips of his fingers. 'Because death is what awaits you if you stay out there, too.' He dropped into the darkness. A moment later there was an unenlightened curse from below. Lobsang climbed in, hung by his fingertips, dropped and rolled when he hit the floor.
'Well done,' said Lu-Tze in the gloom. 'When in doubt, choose to live. This way!' The passageway opened into a wide corridor. The noise here was shattering. Something mechanical was in agony. There was a 'crump' and, a few moments later, a babble of voices. Several dozen monks, wearing thick cork hats as well as their traditional robes, came running round the corner. Most of them were yelling. A few of the brighter ones were saving their breath in order to cover the ground more quickly. Lu-Tze grabbed one of them, who tried to struggle free. 'Let me go!'
'Just get out of here before they all go!' The monk shook himself free and sped after the rest of them. Lu-Tze bent down, picked up a fallen cork helmet, and solemnly handed it to Lobsang. 'Health and safety at work,' he said. 'Very important.'
'Will it protect me?' said Lobsang, putting it on. 'Not really. But when they find your head, it may be recognizable. When we get into the hall, don't touch anything.' Lobsang had been expecting some vaulted, magnificent structure. People talked about the Procrastinator Hall as if it was some kind of huge cathedral. But what there was, at the end of the passage, was a haze of blue smoke. It was only when his eyes became accustomed to the swirling gloom that he saw the nearest cylinder. It was a squat pillar of rock, about three yards across and six yards high. It was spinning so fast that it was a blur. Around it the air flickered with slivers of silver-blue light. 'See? They're dumping! Over here! Quick!' Lobsang ran after Lu-Tze, and saw there were hundreds - no, thousands - of the cylinders, some of them reaching all the way to the cavern roof. There were still monks in here, running to and from the wells with buckets of water, which flashed into steam when they threw it over the smoking stone bearings at the base of the cylinders. 'Idiots,' the sweeper muttered. He cupped his hands and shouted, 'Where-is-the-overseer?' Lobsang pointed down to the edge of a wooden podium built onto the wall of the hall.
There was a rotting cork hat there, and a pair of ancient sandals. In between was a pile of grey dust. 'Poor fellow,' said Lu-Tze. 'A full fifty thousand years in one jolt, I'd say.' He glared at the scurrying monks again. 'Will you lot stop and come here! I ain't going to ask you twice!' Several of them swept the sweat out of their eyes and trotted towards the podium, relieved to hear any kind of order, while behind them the Procrastinators screamed. 'Right!' said Lu-Tze, as they were joined by more and more. 'Now listen to me! This is just a surge cascade! You've all heard of them! We can deal with it! We just have to cross-link futures and pasts, fastest ones first-'
'Poor Mr Shoblang already tried that,' said a monk. He nodded at the sad pile. 'Then I want two teams-' Lu-Tze stopped. 'No, we haven't got time! We'll do it by the soles of our feet, like we used to do! One man to a spinner, just smack the bars when I say! Ready to go when I call the numbers!' Lu-Tze climbed onto the podium and ran his eye over a board covered with wooden bobbins. A red or blue nimbus hovered over each one. 'What a mess,' he said. 'What a mess.'
'What do they mean?' said Lobsang. Lu-Tze's hands hovered over the bobbins. 'Okay. The red-tinted ones are winding time out, speeding it up,' he said. 'The blue-tinted ones, they're winding time in, slowing it down. Brightness of the colour, that's how fast they're doing it. Except that now they're all freewheeling because the surge cut them loose, understand?'
'Loose from what?'
'From the load. From the world. See up there?' He waved a hand towards two long racks that ran all the way along the cavern wall. Each one held a row of swivelling shutters, one line blue, one line dark red. 'The more shutters showing a colour, the more time winding or unwinding?'
'Good lad! Got to keep it balanced! And the way we get through this is we couple the spinners up in twos, so that they wind and unwind one another. Cancel themselves out. Poor old Shoblang was trying to put them back into service, I reckon. Can't be done, not during a cascade. You've got to let it all fall over, and then pick up the pieces when it's nice and quiet.' He glanced at the bobbins and then at the crowd of monks. 'Right. You... l28 to 17, and then 45 to 89. Off you go. And you. . . 596 to, let's see... yes, 402...'
'Seven hundred and ninety!' shouted Lobsang, pointing to a bobbin. 'You what?'
'Seven hundred and ninety!'
'Don't be daft. That's still unwinding, lad. Four hundred and two is our man, right here.'
'Seven hundred and ninety is about to start winding time again!'
'It's still bright blue.'
'It's going to wind. I know it. Because' - the novice's finger moved over the lines of bobbins, hesitated, and pointed to a bobbin on the other side of the board - 'it's matching speeds with this one.' Lu-Tze peered. 'It is written, “Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs!”' he said. 'They're forming a natural inversion.' He squinted at Lobsang. 'You're not the reincarnation of someone, are you? That happens a lot in these parts.'
'I don't think so. It's just... obvious.'
'A moment ago you didn't know anything about these!'
'Yes, yes, but when you see them... it's obvious.'
'Is it? Is it? All right. Then the board's yours, wonder boy!' Lu-Tze stood back. 'Mine? But I-'
'Get on with it! That is an order.' For a moment there was a suggestion of blue light around Lobsang. Lu-Tze wondered how much time he'd folded around himself in that second. Time enough to think, certainly. Then the boy called out half a dozen pairs of numbers. Lu-Tze turned to the monks. 'Jump to it, boys. Mr Lobsang has the board! You boys just watch those bearings!'
'But he's a novice-' one of the monks began, and stopped and backed away when he saw Lu- Tze's expression. 'All right, Sweeper ... all right...' A moment later there was the sound of jumpers slamming into place. Lobsang called out another set of numbers. While the monks dashed to and fro to the butter pits for grease, Lu-Tze watched the nearest column. It was still spinning fast, but he was sure he could see the carvings. Lobsang ran his eye over the board again and stared up at the rumbling cylinders, and then back to the lines of shutters. There wasn't anything written down about all this, Lu-Tze knew. You couldn't teach it in a classroom, although they tried. A good spin driver learned it through the soles of his feet, for all the theory that they taught you these days. He'd learn to feel the flows, to see the rows of
Procrastinators as sinks or fountains of time. Old Shoblang had been so good that he'd been able to pull a couple of hours of wasted time from a classroom of bored pupils without their even noticing, and dump it into a busy workshop a thousand miles away as neat as you pleased. And then there was that trick he used to do with an apple to amaze the apprentices. He'd put it on a pillar next to them, and then flick time at it off one of the small spindles. In an instant it'd be a collection of small, spindly trees before crumbling to dust. That's what'll happen to you if you get things wrong, he'd say. Lu-Tze glanced down at the pile of grey dust under the disintegrating hat as he hurried past. Well, maybe it was the way he'd want to go- A scream of tormented stone made him look up. 'Keep those bearings greased, you lazy devils!' he yelled, running down the rows. 'And watch those rails! Hands off the splines! We're doing fine!' As he ran he kept his eyes on the columns. They were no longer turning randomly. Now, they had purpose. 'I think you're winning, lad!' he shouted to the figure on the podium. 'Yes, but I can't balance it! There's too much time wound up and nowhere to put it!'