Thief of Time

Page 29

'Yes, dear.'

'I thought I liked beef.'

'No, dear. Beef gives you wind.'

'Oh.' War sighed. 'Any chance of onions?'

'You don't like onions, dear.'

'I don't?'

'Because of your stomach, dear.'

'Oh.' War smiled awkwardly at Death. 'It's rabbit,' he said. 'Erm ... dear, do I ride out for Apocalypses?' Mrs War took the lid off a saucepan and prodded viciously at something inside. 'No, dear,' she said firmly. 'You always come down with a cold.'

'I thought I rather, er, sort of liked that kind of thing... ?'

'No, dear. You don't.' Despite himself, Death was fascinated. He had never come across the idea of keeping your memory inside someone else's head. 'Perhaps I would like a beer?' War ventured. 'You don't like beer, dear.'

'I don't?'

'No, it brings on your trouble.'

'Ah. Uh, how do I feel about brandy?'

'You don't like brandy, dear. You like your special oat drink with the vitamins.'

'Oh, yes,' said War mournfully. 'I'd forgotten I liked that.' He looked sheepishly at Death. 'It's quite nice,' he said. COULD I HAVE A WORD WITH YOU, said Death, IN PRIVATE? War looked puzzled. 'Do I like wo-' IN PRIVATE, PLEASE, Death thundered. Mrs War turned and gave Death a disdainful look.

'I understand, I quite understand,' she said haughtily. 'But don't you dare say anything to bring on his acid, that's all I shall say.' Mrs War had been a Valkyrie once, Death remembered. It was another reason to be extremely careful on the battlefield. 'You've never been tempted by the prospect of marriage, old man?' said War, when she'd gone. NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. IN NO WAY. 'Why not?' Death was nonplussed. It was like asking a brick wall what it thought of dentistry. As a question, it made no sense. I HAVE BEEN TO SEE THE OTHER TWO, he said, ignoring it. FAMINE DOESN'T CARE AND PESTILENCE IS FRIGHTENED. 'The two of us, against the Auditors?' said War. RIGHT IS ON OUR SIDE. 'Speaking as War,' said War, 'I'd hate to tell you what happens to very small armies that have Right on their side.' I HAVE SEEN YOU FIGHT . 'My old right arm isn't what it was...' War murmured. YOU ARE IMMORTAL. YOU ARE NOT ILL, said Death, but he could see the worried, slightly hunted look in Wars eyes and knew that there was only one way this was going to go. To be human was to change, Death realized. The Horsemen... were horsemen. Men had wished upon them a certain shape, a certain form. And, just like the gods, and the Tooth Fairy, and the Hogfather, their shape had changed them. They would never be human, but they had caught aspects of humanity as though they were some kind of disease. Because the point was that nothing, nothing, had one aspect and one aspect alone. Men would envisage a being called Famine, but once they gave him arms and legs and eyes, that meant he had to have a brain. That meant he'd think. And a brain can't think about plagues of locusts all the time. Emergent behaviour again. Complications always crept in. Everything changed. THANK GOODNESS, thought Death, THAT I AM COMPLETELY UNCHANGED AND EXACTLY THE SAME AS I EVER WAS. And then there was one.

Tick The hammer stopped, halfway across the room. Mr White walked over and picked it out of the air. 'Really, your ladyship,' he said. 'You think we don't watch you? You, the Igor, make the clock ready!' Igor looked from him to Lady LeJean and back. 'I only take orderth from Marthter Jeremy, thank you,' he said. 'The world will end if you start that clock!' said Lady LeJean. 'What a foolish idea,' said Mr White. 'We laugh at it.'

'Hahaha,' said the other Auditors obediently. 'I don't need medicine!' Jeremy shouted, pushing Dr Hopkins out of the way. 'And I don't need people to tell me what to do. Shut up!' In the silence, thunder grumbled in the clouds. 'Thank you,' said Jeremy, more calmly. 'Now, I hope I am a rational man, and I shall approach this rationally. A clock is a measuring device. I have built the perfect clock, my lady. I mean ladies. And gentlemen. It will revolutionize timekeeping.' He reached up and moved the hands of the clock to almost one o'clock. Then he reached down, gripped the pendulum, and set it swinging. The world continued to exist. 'You see? The universe doesn't stop even for my clock,' Jeremy went on. He folded his hands and sat down. 'Watch,' he said calmly. The clock ticked gently. Then something rattled in the machinery around it, and the big green glass tubes of acid began to sizzle. 'Well, nothing seems to have happened,' said Dr Hopkins. 'That's a blessing.' Sparks crackled around the lightning rod positioned above the clock. 'This is just making a path for the lightning,' said Jeremy happily. 'We send a little lightning up, and a lot more comes back-' Things were moving inside the clock. There was a sound best represented as fizzle, and greenish-blue light filled the case. 'Ah, the cascade has initialized,' said Jeremy. 'As a little exercise, the, ah, more traditional pendulum clock has been slaved to the Big Clock, you'll see, so that every second it will be readjusted to the correct time.' He smiled, and one cheek twitched. 'Some day all clocks will

be like this,' he said, and added, 'While I normally hate such an imprecise term as “any second now”, nevertheless I-' Tick There was a fight going on in the square. In the strange colours involved in the time-slicing state known as Zimmerman's Valley, it was picked out in shades of light blue. By the look of it, a couple of watchmen were trying to take on a gang. One man was airborne, and hung there without support. Another had fired a crossbow directly at one of the watchmen; the arrow was nailed unmoving in the air. Lobsang examined it curiously. 'You're going to touch it, aren't you?' said a voice behind Lobsang. 'You're just going to reach out and touch it, despite everything I've told you. Pay attention to the damn sky!' Lu-Tze was smoking nervously. When it got a few inches away from his body, the smoke went rigid in the air. 'Are you sure you can't feel where it is?' he snapped. 'It's all round us, Sweeper. We're so close, it... it's like trying to see the wood when you're standing under the trees!'

'Well, this is the Street of Cunning Artificers and that's the Guild of Clockmakers over there,' said Lu-Tze. 'I don't dare go inside if it's this close, not until we're certain.'

'What about the University?'

'Wizards aren't mad enough to try it!'

'You're going to try and race the lightning?'

'It's do-able, if we start from here in the Valley. Lightning ain't as quick as people think.'

'Are we waiting to see a little pointy bit of lightning coming out of a cloud?'

'Hah! Kids today, where do they get their education? The first stroke is from the ground to the air, lad. That makes a nice hole in the air for the main lightning to come down. Look for the glow. We've got to be giving the road plenty of sandal by the time it reaches the clouds. You holding up okay?'

'I could go on like this all day,' said Lobsang. 'Don't try it.' Lu-Tze scanned the sky again. 'Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it's just a storm. Sooner or later you get-' He stopped. One look at Lobsang's face was enough.

'O-kay,' said the sweeper slowly. ' Just give me a direction. Point if you can't speak.' Lobsang dropped to his knees, hands rising to his head. 'I don't know... don't know...' Silvery light rose over the city, a few streets away. Lu-Tze grabbed the boy's elbow. 'Come on, lad. On your feet. Faster than lightning, eh? Okay?'

'Yeah... yeah, okay...'

'You can do it, right?' Lobsang blinked. He could see the glass house again, stretching away as a pale outline overlaid the city. 'Clock,' he said thickly. 'Run, boy, run!' shouted Lu-Tze. 'And don't stop for anything.' Lobsang plunged forward, and found it hard. Time moved aside for him, sluggishly at first, as his legs pumped. With every step he pushed himself faster and faster, the landscape changing colours again as the world slowed even further. There was another stitch in time, the sweeper had said. Another valley, even closer to the null point. Insofar as he could think at all, Lobsang hoped he would reach it soon. His body felt as though it would fly apart; he could feel his bones creaking. The glow ahead was halfway to the iron-heavy clouds now, but he'd reached a crossroads and he could see it was rising from a house halfway down the street. He turned to look for the sweeper, and saw the man yards behind him, mouth open, a statue falling forward. Lobsang turned, concentrated, let time speed up. He reached Lu-Tze and caught him before he hit the ground. There was blood coming from the old man's ears. 'I can't do it, lad,' the sweeper mumbled. 'Get on! Get on!'

'I can do it! It's like running downhill!'

'Not for me it ain't!'

'I can't just leave you here like this!'

'Save us from heroes! Get that bloody clock!' Lobsang hesitated. The downstroke was already emerging from the clouds, a drifting, glowing spike.

He ran. The lightning was falling towards a shop, a few buildings away. He could see a big clock hanging over its window. He pushed against the flow of time ever further, and it yielded. But the lightning had reached the iron pole atop the building. The window was closer than the door. He lowered his head and jumped through it, the glass shattering around him and then freezing in mid-air, clocks pinwheeling off the display and stopping as if caught in invisible amber. There was another door ahead of him. He grabbed the knob and pulled, feeling the terrible resistance of a slab of wood urged to move at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. It was barely open a few inches when he saw, beyond, the slow ooze of lightning run down the rod and into the heart of the big clock. The clock struck one. Time stopped. Ti- Mr Soak the dairyman was washing bottles at the sink when the air dimmed and the water solidified. He stared at it for a moment and then, with the manner of a man trying an experiment, held the bottle over the stone floor and let it go. It remained hanging in the air. 'Dammit,' he said. 'Another idiot with a clock, eh?' What he did then was not usual dairy practice. He walked into the centre of the room and made a few passes in the air with his hands. The air brightened. The water splashed. The bottle smashed although, when Ronnie turned round and waved a hand at it, the glass slivers ran together again. Then Ronnie Soak sighed and went into the cream-settling room. Large wide bowls stretched away into the distance and, if Ronnie had ever allowed another to notice this, the distance contained far more distance than is ever found in a normal building. 'Show me,' he said. The surface of the nearest bowl of milk became a mirror, and then began to show pictures... Ronnie went back into the dairy, took his peaked cap off its hook by the door, and crossed the courtyard to the stable. The sky overhead was a sullen, unmoving grey as he emerged, leading his horse. The horse was black, glistening with condition, and there was this about it

that was odd: it shone as though it was illuminated by a red light. Redness spangled off its shoulders and flanks, even under the greyness. And even when it was harnessed to the cart it didn't look like any kind of horse that should be hitched to any kind of wagon, but people never noticed this and, again, Ronnie took care to make sure that they didn't. The cart gleamed with white paint, picked out here and there with a fresh green. The wording on the side declared, proudly: RONALD SOAK, HYGIENIC DAIRYMAN. ESTABLISHED Perhaps it was odd that people never asked, 'Established when, exactly?' If they ever had, the answer would have had to be quite complicated. Ronnie opened the gates to the yard and, milk crates rattling, set out into the timeless moment. lt was terrible, he thought, the way things conspired against the small businessman. Lobsang Ludd awoke to a little clicking, spinning sound. He was in darkness, but it yielded reluctantly to his hand. It felt like velvet, and it was. He'd rolled under one of the display cabinets. There was a vibration in the small of his back. He reached around gingerly, and realized that the portable Procrastinator was revolving in its cage. So... How did it go, now? He was living on borrowed time. He'd got maybe an hour, perhaps a lot less. But he could slice it, so... No. Something told him that trying that would be a really terminal idea with time stored in a device made by Qu. The mere thought made him feel that his skin was inches from a universe full of razorblades. So... one hour, perhaps a lot less. But you could rewind a spinner, right? No. The handle was at the back. You could rewind someone else's spinner. Thank you, Qu, and your experimental models. Could you take it off, then? No. The harness was part of it. Without it, different parts of your body would be travelling at different speeds. The effect would probably be rather like freezing a human body solid, and then pushing it down a flight of stone stairs. Open the box with the crowbar that you will find inside... There was a green-blue glow through the crack in the door. He took a step towards it, and heard the spinner suddenly pick up speed. That meant it was shedding more time, and that was bad when you had an hour, perhaps a lot less.

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