'Me neither. The abbot's your man for that kind of stuff. Lemme see... okay... think of the smallest amount of time that you can. Really small. So tiny that a second would be like a billion years. Got that? Well, the cosmic quantum tick - that's what the abbot calls it - the cosmic quantum tick is much smaller than that. It's the time it takes to go from now to then. The time it takes an atom to think of wobbling. It's-'
'It's the time it takes for the smallest thing that's possible to happen to happen?' said Lobsang. 'Exactly. Well done,' said Lu-Tze. He took a deep breath. 'It's also the time it takes for the whole universe to be destroyed in the past and rebuilt in the future. Don't look at me like that - that's what the abbot said.'
'Has it been happening while we've been talking?' said Lobsang. 'Millions of times. An oodleplex of times, probably.'
'How many's that?'
'It's one of the abbot's words. It means more numbers than you can imagine in a yonk.'
'What's a yonk?'
'A very long time.'
'And we don't feel it? The universe is destroyed and we don't feel it?'
'They say not. The first time it was explained to me I got a bit jumpy, but it's far too quick for us to notice.' Lobsang stared at the snow for a while. Then he said, 'All right. Go on.'
'Someone in Uberwald built this clock out of glass. Powered by lightning, as I recall. It somehow got down to a level where it could tick with the universe.'
'Why did he want to do that?'
'Listen, he lived in a big old castle on a crag in Uberwald. People like that don't need a reason apart from “because I can”. They have a nightmare and try to make it happen.'
'But, look, you can't make a clock like that, because it's inside the universe, so it'll ... get rebuilt when the universe does, right?' Lu-Tze looked impressed, and said so. 'I'm impressed,' he said. 'It'd be like opening a box with the crowbar that's inside.'
'The abbot believes that part of the clock was outside, though.'
'You can't have something outside the-'
'Tell that to a man who has been working on the problem for nine lifetimes,' said Lu-Tze. 'You want to hear the rest of the story?'
'So ... we were spread pretty thin in those days, but there was this young sweeper-'
'You,' said Lobsang. 'This is going to be you, right?'
'Yes, yes,' said Lu-Tze testily. 'I was sent to Uberwald. History hadn't diverged much in those days, and we knew something big was going to happen around Bad Schüschein. I must have spent weeks looking. You know how many remote castles there are along the gorges? You can't move for remote castles!'
'That's why you didn't find the right one in time,' said Lobsang. 'I remember what you told the abbot.'
'I was just down in the valley when the lightning struck the tower,' said Lu-Tze. 'You know it is written, “Big events always cast their shadows.” But I couldn't detect where it was happening until too late. A half-mile sprint uphill faster than a lightning bolt... No one could do that. Nearly made it, though - I was actually through the door when it all went to hell!'
'No point in blaming yourself, then.'
'Yes, but you know how it is - you keep thinking “If only I'd got up earlier, or had gone a different way...”' said Lu-Tze. 'And the clock struck,' said Lobsang. 'No. It stuck. I told you part of it was outside the universe. It wouldn't go with the flow. It was trying to count the tick, not move with it.'
'But the universe is huge! It can't be stopped by a piece of clock work!' Lu-Tze flicked the end of his cigarette into the fire . 'The abbot says the size wouldn't make any difference at all,' he said. 'Look, it's taken him nine lifetimes to know what he knows, so it's not our fault if we can't understand it, is it? History shattered. It was the only thing that could give. Very strange event. There were
cracks left all over the place. The... oh, I can't remember the words... the fastenings that tell bits of the past which bits of the present they belong to, they were flapping allover the place. Some got lost for ever.' Lu-Tze stared into the dying flames. 'We stitched it up as best we could,' he added. 'Up and down history. Filling up holes with bits of time taken from somewhere else. It's a patchwork, really.'
'Didn't people notice?'
'Why should they? Once we'd done it, it had always been like that. You'd be amazed at what we got away with. F'rinstance-'
'I'm sure they'd spot it somehow.' Lu-Tze gave Lobsang one of his sidelong glances. 'Funny you should say that. I've always wondered about it. People say things like “Where did the time go?” and “It seems like only yesterday.” We had to do it, anyway. And it's healed up very nicely.'
'But people would look in the history books and see-'
'Words, lad. That's all. Anyway, people have been messing around with time ever since there were people. Wasting it, killing it, sparing it, making it up. And they do it. People's heads were made to play with time. Just like we do, except we're better trained and have a few extra skills. And we've spent centuries working to bring it all back in line. You watch the Procrastinators even on a quiet day. Moving time, stretching it here, compressing it there... it's a big job. I'm not going to see it smashed a second time. A second time, there won't be enough left to repair.' He stared at the embers. 'Funny thing,' he said. 'Wen himself had some very curious ideas about time, come the finish. You remember I told you that he reckoned time was alive: He said it acted like a living thing, anyway. Very strange ideas indeed. He said he'd met Time, and she was a woman. To him, anyway. Everyone says that was just a very complicated metaphor, and maybe I was simply hit on the head or something, but on that day I looked at the glass clock just as it exploded and-' He stood up and grabbed his broom. 'Best foot forward, lad. Another two or three seconds and we'll be down in Bong Phut.'
'What were you going to say?' said Lobsang, hurrying to his feet. 'Oh, just an old man rambling,' said Lu-Tze. 'The mind wanders a bit when you get to over seven hundred. Let's get moving.'
'Why are we carrying spinners on our backs?'
'All in good time, lad. I hope.'
'We're carrying time, right? If time stops, we can keep going? Like... divers?'
'Time is a “she”? None of the teachers have mentioned it and I don't recall anything in the scrolls.'
'Don't you think about that. Wen wrote... well, the Secret Scroll, it's called. They keep it in a locked room. Only the abbots and the most senior monks ever get to see it.' Lobsang couldn't let that one pass. 'So how did you-?' he began. 'Well, you wouldn't expect men like that to do the sweeping up in there, would you ?' said Lu-Tze. 'Terribly dusty, it got.'
'What was it about?'
'I didn't read much of it. Didn't feel it was right,' said Lu-Tze. 'You? What was it about, then?'
'It was a love poem. And it was a good one ...' Lu-Tze's image blurred as he sliced time. Then it faded and vanished. A line of footprints appeared across the snowfield. Lobsang wrapped time around himself and followed. And a memory came from nowhere at all: Wen was right. Tick There were lots of places like the warehouse. There always are, in every old city, no matter how valuable the building land is. Sometimes, space just gets lost. A workshop is built, and then another beside it. Factories and storerooms and sheds and temporary lean-tos crawl towards one another, meet and merge. Spaces between outside walls are roofed with tar paper. Odd-shaped bits of ground are colonized by nailing up a bit of wall and cutting a doorway. Old doorways are masked by piles of lumber or new tool racks. The old men who know what was where move on and die, just like the flies who punctuate the thick cobwebs on the grubby windows. Young men, in this noisome world of whirring lathes and paint shops and cluttered workbenches, don't have time to explore. And so there were spaces like this, a small warehouse with a crusted skylight that no fewer than four factory owners thought was owned by one of the other three, when they thought about it at all. In fact each of them owned one wall, and certainly no one recalled who roofed the space. Beyond the walls on all four sides men and dwarfs bent iron, sawed planks, made string and turned screws. But in here was a silence known only to rats.
The air moved, for the first time in years. Dust balls rolled across the floor. Little motes sparkled and spun in the light that forced its way down from the roof. In the surrounding area, invisible and subtle, matter began to move. It came from workmen's sandwiches and gutter dirt and pigeon feathers, an atom here, a molecule there, and streamed unheeded into the centre of the space. It spiralled. Eventually it became, after passing through some strange, ancient and horrible shapes, Lady LeJean. She staggered, but managed to stay upright. Other Auditors also appeared and, as they did so, it seemed that they had never really not been there. The dead greyness of the light merely took on shapes; they emerged like ships from a fog. You stared at the fog, and suddenly part of the fog was hull that had been there all along, and now there was nothing for it but to race for the lifeboats... Lady LeJean said: 'I cannot keep doing this. It is too painful.' One said, Ah, can you tell us what pain is like? We have often wondered. 'No. No, I don't think I can. It is... a body thing. It is not pleasant. From now on, I will retain the body.' One said, That could be dangerous. Lady LeJean shrugged. 'We have been through that before. It's only a matter of appearance,' she said. 'And it is remarkable how much easier it is to deal with humans in this form.' One said, You shrugged. And you are talking with your mouth. A hole for food and air. 'Yes. It is remarkable, isn't it?' Lady LeJean's body found an old crate, pulled it over and sat on it. She hardly had to think about muscle movements at all. One said, You aren't eating, are you? 'As yet, no.' One said, As yet? That raises the whole dreadful subject of. . . orifices. One said, And how did you learn to shrug? 'It comes with the body,' said her ladyship. 'We never realized this, did we? Most of the things it does it appears to do automatically. Standing upright takes no effort whatsoever. The whole business gets easier every time.' The body shifted position slightly, and crossed its legs. Amazing, she thought. It did it to be comfortable. I didn't have to think about it at all. We never guessed. One said, There will be questions.
The Auditors hated questions. They hated them almost as much as they hated decisions, and they hated decisions almost as much as they hated the idea of the individual personality. But what they hated most was things moving around randomly. 'Believe me, everything will be fine,' said Lady LeJean. 'We will not be breaking any of the rules, after all. All that will happen is that time will stop. Everything thereafter will be neat. Alive, but not moving. Tidy.' One said, And we can get the filing finished. 'Exactly,' said Lady LeJean. 'And he wants to do it. That is the strange thing. He hardly thinks about the consequences.' One said, Splendid. There was one of those pauses when no one is quite ready to speak. And then: One said, Tell us. ... What is it like? 'What is what like?' One said, Being insane. Being human. 'Strange. Disorganized. Several levels of thinking go on at once. There are... things we have no word for. For example, the idea of eating seems now to have an attraction. The body tells me this.' One said, Attraction? As in gravity? 'Ye-es. One is drawn towards food.' One said, Food in large masses? 'Even in small amounts.' One said, But eating is simply a function. What is the ... attraction of performing a function? Surely the knowledge that it is necessary for continued survival is sufficient? 'I cannot say,' said Lady LeJean. One Auditor said, You persist in using a personal pronoun. And one added, And you have not died! To be an individual is to live, and to live is to die! 'Yes. I know. But it is essential for humans to use the personal pronoun. It divides the universe into two parts. The darkness behind the eyes, where the little voice is, and everything else. It is... a horrible feeling. It is like being... questioned, all the time.' One said, What is the little voice?