Thief of Time

Page 28

'Do you know how to stop this?' yelled Lobsang. 'Not in so many words,' shouted Lu-Tze. 'Hold on, I'm going to try something...' The stick tilted up but kept moving in the same direction. The bristles dipped into the cabbages. It took the width of a field to slow down, at the end of a furrow with the smell that only squashed cabbage leaves can yield. 'How fine can you slice time?' the sweeper said, scrambling over the battered plants. 'I'm pretty good-' Lobsang began. 'Get better quick!' Lu-Tze faded to blue as he ran towards the city. Lobsang caught him up within a hundred yards but the sweeper was still fading, still slicing time thinner and thinner. The apprentice gritted his teeth and followed, straining every muscle. The old man might be a fraud when it came to fighting, but there was no kidding here. The world went from blue to indigo to an inky, unnatural darkness, like the shadow of an eclipse. This was deep time. You couldn't stay there long, he knew. Even if you could tolerate the ghastly chill, there were parts of the body that just weren't designed for this. Go too far down, too, and you'd die if you came back too quickly... He hadn't seen it, of course, no apprentice had, but there were some quite graphic drawings in the classrooms. A man's life could become very, very painful if his blood began to move through time faster than his bones. It would also be very short. 'I can't ... keep this up...' he panted, running after Lu-Tze in the violet gloom. 'You can,' gasped the sweeper. 'You're fast, right?'

'I'm not ... trained ... for this!' The city was getting closer. 'No one's trained for this!' growled Lu-Tze. 'You do it, and you find out that you're good at it!'

'What happens if you find out you're no good?' said Lobsang. The going felt easier now. He no longer had the feeling that his skin was trying to drag itself off him. 'Dead men don't find things out,' said Lu-Tze. He turned his head to his apprentice and his evil grin was a yellow-toothed curve in the shadows. 'Getting the hang?' he added. 'I'm... I'm on top of it...'

'Right! Then now that we've warmed up...'

To Lobsang's horror, the sweeper faded further into the dark. He called up reserves he knew he didn't have. He screamed at his liver to stay with him, thought that he felt his brain creak, and plunged on. The shape of Lu-Tze lightened as Lobsang drew level with him in time. 'Still here? One last effort, lad!'

'I can't!'

'You bloody well can!' Lobsang gulped freezing air and fell onwards- -where the light was suddenly a calm, pale blue and Lu-Tze was trotting gently between the frozen carts and unmoving people around the city's gate. 'See? Nothing to it,' said the sweeper. 'Just maintain, that's all. Nice and steady.' It was like balancing on a wire. It was fine if you didn't think about it. 'But all the scrolls say you go to blue and violet and into the black and then you hit the Wall,' said Lobsang. 'Ah, well, scrolls,' said Lu-Tze, and left it there, as if the tone of voice said it all. 'This is Zimmerman's Valley, lad. It helps if you know it's here. The abbot said it's something to do with... what was it? ... Oh, yeah, boundary conditions. Something like... the foam on the tide. We're right on the edge, boy!'

'But I can breathe easily!'

'Yeah. Shouldn't happen. Keep moving about, though, otherwise you'll exhaust all the good air around your body field. Good old Zimmerman, eh? One of the best, he was. And he reckoned there was another dip even closer to the Wall, too.'

'Did he ever find it?'

'Don't think so.'


'The way he exploded gave me a hint. Don't worry! You can maintain the slice easily here. You don't have to think about it. You've got other things to think about! Keep an eye on those clouds!' Lobsang looked up. Even in this blue-on-blue landscape, the clouds over the city looked ominous.

'It's what happened back in Uberwald,' said Lu-Tze. 'The clock needs a lot of power. The storm blew up out of nowhere.'

'But the city's huge! How can we find a clock here?'

'First, we're going to head for the centre,' said Lu-Tze. 'Why?'

'Because with luck we won't have to run so far when the lightning strikes, of course.'

'Sweeper, no one can outrun lightning!' Lu-Tze spun round and grabbed Lobsang by the robe, dragging him closer. 'Then tell me where to run, speedy boy!' he shouted. 'There's more to you than meets the third eye, lad! No apprentice should be able to find Zimmerman's Valley! It takes hundreds of years of training! And no one should be able to make the spinners sit up and dance to his tune the very first time he sees them! Think I'm daft, do you? Orphan boy, strange power... what the hell are you? The Mandala knew you! Well, I'm just a mortal human, and what I know is, I'll be damned if I'll see the world shattered a second time! So help me! Whatever it is you've got, I need it now! Use it!' He let go, and stood back. A vein in his bald head was throbbing. 'But I don't know what I can do to-'

'Find out what you can do!' Tick Protocol. Rules. Precedent. Ways of doing things. That's how we've always worked, thought Lady LeJean. This and this must follow that. It has always been our strength. I wonder if it can be a weakness? If looks could have killed, Dr Hopkins would have been a smear on the wall. The Auditors watched his every move like cats watching a new species of mouse. Lady LeJean had been incarnate much longer than the others. Time can change a body, especially when you've never had one before. She wouldn't have stared and fumed. She would have clubbed the doctor to the ground. What was one more human? She realized, with some amazement, that the thought there was a human thought. But the other six were still wet behind the ears. They hadn't yet realized the dimensions of duplicity that you needed to survive as a human being. They clearly found it hard to think inside the little dark world behind the eyes, too. Auditors reached decisions in concert with thousands, millions of other Auditors.

Sooner or later they'd learn to be their own thinkers, though. It might take a while, because they'd try to learn from one another first. At the moment they were watching Igor's tea tray with great suspicion. 'Drinking tea is protocol,' said Lady LeJean. 'I must insist.'

'Is this correct?' Mr White barked at Dr Hopkins. 'Oh, yes,' said the doctor. 'With a ginger biscuit, usually,' he added hopefully. 'A ginger biscuit,' repeated Mr White. ' A biscuit of red-brown colouring?'

'Yeth, thur,' said Igor. He nodded to the plate on his tray. 'I would like to try a ginger biscuit,' volunteered Miss Red. Oh yes, thought Lady LeJean, please try the ginger biscuits. 'We do not eat or drink!' snapped Mr White. He gave Lady LeJean a look of deep suspicion. 'It could cause incorrect ways of thinking.'

'But it is the custom,' said Lady LeJean. 'To ignore protocol is to draw attention.' Mr White hesitated. But he was a quick adaptor. 'It is against our religion!' he said. 'Correct!' It was an amazing leap. It was inventive. And he'd come up with it all alone. Lady LeJean was impressed. The Auditors had tried to understand religion, because so much that made no sense whatsoever was done in its name. But it could also excuse practically any kind of eccentricity. Genocide, for example. By comparison, a lack of tea drinking was easy. 'Yes, indeed!' said Mr White, turning to the other Auditors. 'Is that not true?'

'Yes, that is not true. Indeed!' said Mr Green desperately. 'Oh?' said Dr Hopkins. 'I did not know there was any religion that forbade tea.'

'Indeed!' said Mr White. Lady LeJean could almost feel his mind racing. 'It is a... yes, it is a drink of the... correct... it is a drink of the... extremely bad negatively regarded gods. It is a... correct... it is a commandment of our religion to... yes... to shun ginger biscuits also.' There was sweat on his forehead. For an Auditor, this was genius-level creativity. 'Also,' he went on slowly, as if reading the words off some page invisible to everyone else, 'our religion... correct! ... our religion demands that the clock be started now! For... who may know when the hour may be?' Despite herself, Lady LeJean nearly applauded. 'Who indeed?' said Dr Hopkins.

'I, I absolutely agree,' said Jeremy, who had been staring at Lady LeJean. 'I don't understand who you... why there's all this fuss ... I don't understand why... oh, dear... I'm having a headache...' Dr Hopkins spilled his tea because of the speed with which he got up and reached into his coat pocket. 'AhitsohappensIwaspassingtheapothecaryonmywayhere-' he began, all in one breath. 'I feel it's not the time to start the clock,' said Lady LeJean, edging herself along the desk. The hammer was still invitingly there. 'I'm seeing those little flashes of light, Dr Hopkins,' said Jeremy urgently, staring into the middle distance. 'Not the flashes of light! Not the flashes of light!' said Dr Hopkins. He grabbed a teaspoon off Igor's tray, stared at it, threw it over his shoulder, tipped the tea out of a cup, opened the bottle of blue medicine by smashing the top off on the edge of the bench, and poured a cupful, spilling quite a lot of it in his hurry. The hammer was inches away from her ladyship's hand. She didn't dare look round, but she could sense it there. While the Auditors stared at the trembling Jeremy, she let her fingers walk across the bench. She wouldn't even have to move. A brisk overarm throw should do it. She saw Dr Hopkins try to put the cup to Jeremy's lips. The boy put his hands over his face and elbowed the cup out of the way, spilling the medicine across the floor. Then Lady LeJean's fingers were grasping the handle. She brought her hand round and hurled the hammer directly at the clock. Tick The war was going badly for the weaker side. Their positioning was wrong, their tactics ragged, their strategy hopeless. The Red army advanced across the whole front, dismembering the scurrying remnant of the collapsing Black battalions. There was room for only one anthill on this lawn... Death found War down among the grass blades. He admired attention to detail. War was in full armour, too, but the human heads he normally had tied to his saddle had been replaced by ant heads, feelers and all. DO THEY NOTICE YOU, DO YOU THINK? he said. 'I doubt it,' said War. NEVERTHELESS, IF THEY DID, I'M SURE THEY WOULD APPRECIATE IT. 'Ha! Only decent theatre of war around these days,' said War. 'That's what I like about ants. The buggers don't learn, what?'

IT HAS BEEN RATHER PEACEFUL OF LATE, I AGREE, said Death. 'Peaceful?' said War. 'Ha! I may as well change m'name to “Police Action”, or “Negotiated Settlement”! Remember the old days? Warriors used to froth at the mouth! Arms and legs bouncing in all directions! Great times, eh?' He leaned across and slapped Death on the back. 'I'll bag' em and you tag' em, what?' This looked hopeful, Death thought. TALKING OF THE OLD DAYS, he said carefully, I'M SURE YOU REMEMBER THE TRADITION OF RIDING OUT? War gave him a puzzled look. 'Mind's a blank on that one, old boy.' I SENT OUT THE CALL. 'Can't say it rings a bell...' APOCALYPSE? said Death. END OF THE WORLD? War continued to stare. 'Definitely knocking, old chap, but no one's home. And talking of home...' War looked around at the twitching remains of the recent slaughter. 'Spot of lunch?' Around them the forest of grass grew shorter and smaller until it was, indeed, no more than grass, and became the lawn outside a house. It was an ancient long-house. Where else would War live? But Death saw ivy growing over the roof. He remembered when War would never have allowed anything like that, and a little worm of worry began to gnaw. War hung up his helmet as he entered, and once he would have kept it on. And the benches around the fire pit would have been crowded with warriors, and the air would have been thick with beer and sweat. 'Brought an old friend back, dear,' he said. Mrs War was preparing something on the modern black iron kitchen range which, Death saw, had been installed in the fire pit, with shiny pipes extending up to the hole in the roof. She gave Death the kind of nod a wife gives a man whom her husband has, despite previous warnings, unexpectedly brought back from the pub. 'We're having rabbit,' she said, and added in the voice of one who has been put upon and will extract payment later, 'I'm sure I can make it stretch to three.' War's big red face wrinkled. 'Do I like rabbit?'

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