Thief of time, p.30
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       Thief of Time, p.30

         Part #26 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 30

 

  He took a step away from the door and the Procrastinator settled back into its routine clicking. So. . . Lu-Tze was out in the street and he had a spinner and that should have cut in automatically too. In this timeless world, he was going to be the only person who could turn a handle. The glass that he had broken in his leap through the window had opened around the hole like a great sparkling flower. He reached out to touch a piece. It moved as though alive, cut his finger, and then dropped towards the ground, stopping only when it fell out of the field around his body. Dont touch people, Lu-Tze had said. Dont touch arrows. Dont touch things that were moving, that was the rule. But the glass- -but the glass, in normal time, had been flying through the air. Itd still have that energy, wouldnt it? He eased himself carefully around the glass, and opened the front door of the shop. The wood moved very slowly, fighting against the enormous speed. Lu-Tze was not in the street. But there was something new, hovering in the air just a few inches above the ground right where the old man had been. It had not been there before. Someone with their own portable time had been here, and dropped this and moved on before it reached the ground. It was a small glass jar, coloured blue by temporal effects. Now, how much energy could it have? Lobsang cupped his hand and gingerly brought it underneath and up, and there was a tingle and a sudden feeling of weight as the spinners field claimed it. Now its true colours came back. The jar was a milky pink or, rather, clear glass that looked pink because of the contents. The paper lid was covered with badly printed pictures of unbelievably flawless strawberries, surrounding some ornate lettering which read: Ronald Soak, Hygienic Dairyman STRAWBERRY YOGHURT Fresh As The Morning Dew Soak? He knew the name! The man had delivered milk to the Guild! Good fresh milk, too, not the watery, green-tinted stuff the other dairies supplied. Very reliable, everyone said. But, reliable or not, he was just a milkman. All right, just a very good milkman, and if time had stopped, then why- Lobsang looked around desperately. The people and carts that thronged the street were still there. No one had moved. No one could move.

  But something was running along the gutter. It looked like a rat in a black robe, running along on its hind legs. It looked up at Lobsang, and he saw that it had a skull rather than a head. As skulls went, it was quite a cheerful one. The word SQUEAK manifested itself inside his brain without bothering to go via his ears. Then the rat hopped onto the pavement and scampered down an alley. Lobsang followed it. A moment later someone behind him grabbed him by the neck. He went to break the lock, and realized how much hed relied on slicing when he was fought. Besides, the person behind him had a very strong grip indeed. I just want to make sure you dont do anything silly, it said. It was a female voice. What is this thing on your back?

  Who are-?

  The protocol in these matters, said the voice, is that the person with the killer neck-grip asks the questions.

  Er, its a Procrastinator. Er, it stores time. Who-

  Oh dear, there you go again. What is your name?

  Lobsang. Lobsang Ludd. Look, could you wind me up, please? Its urgent.

  Certainly. Lobsang Ludd, you are thoughtless and impulsive and deserve to die a stupid and pointless death.

  What?

  And you are also rather slow on the uptake. You are referring to this handle?

  Yes. Im running out of time. Now can I ask who you are?

  Miss Susan. Hold still. He heard, behind him, the incredibly welcome sound of the Procrastinators clockwork being rewound. Miss Susan? he said. Thats what most people I know call me. Now, Im going to let you go. I will add that trying anything stupid will be counterproductive. Besides, Im the only person in the world right now who might be inclined to twiddle your handle again. The pressure was released. Lobsang turned slowly.

  Miss Susan was a slightly built young woman, dressed severely all in black. Her hair stood out around her head like an aura, white-blond with one black streak. But the most striking thing about her was. . . was everything, Lobsang realized, everything from her expression to the way she stood. Some people fade into the background. Miss Susan faded into the foreground. She stood out. Everything she stood in front of became nothing more than background. Finished? she said. Seen everything?

  Sorry. Have you seen an old man? Dressed a bit like me? With one of these on his back?

  No. Now its my turn. Have you got rhythm?

  What? Susan rolled her eyes. All right. Do you have music?

  Not on me, no!

  And you certainly havent got a girl, said Susan. I saw Old Man Trouble go past a few minutes ago. Itd be a good idea if you dont bump into him, then.

  And is he likely to have taken my friend?

  I doubt it. And Old Man Trouble is more an “it” than a “he”. Anyway, theres far worse than him around right now. Even the bogeymen have gone to ground.

  Look, time has stopped, right? said Lobsang. Yes.

  So how can you be here talking to me?

  Im not what you might call a creature of time, said Susan. I work in it, but I dont have to live there. There are a few of us about.

  Like this Old Man Trouble you mentioned?

  Right. And the Hogfather, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, people like that.

  I thought they were mythical?

  So? Susan glanced out of the mouth of the alley again. And youre not?

  I take it you didnt stop the clock, said Miss Susan, looking up and down the street. No. I was. . . too late. Perhaps I shouldnt have gone back to help Lu-Tze.

  Im sorry? You were dashing to prevent the end of the world but you stopped to help some old man? You. . . hero!

  Oh, I wouldnt say that I was a- And then Lobsang stopped. She hadnt said You hero in the tone of voice of You star; it had been the tone in which people say You idiot.

  I see a lot of your sort, Susan went on. Heroes have a very strange grasp of elementary maths, you know. If youd smashed the clock before it struck, everything would have been fine. Now the world has stopped and weve been invaded and were probably all going to die, just because you stopped to help someone. I mean, very worthy and all that, but very, very. . . human. She used the word as if she meant it to mean silly. You mean you need cool calculating bastards to save the world, do you? said Lobsang. The cool calculation does help, I must admit, said Susan. Now, shall we go and look at this clock?

  Why? The damage is done now. If we smash it, itll only make things worse. Besides, uh, the spinner started to run wild and I, er, I felt-

  Cautious, said Susan. Good. Caution is sensible. But theres something I want to check. Lobsang tried to pull himself together. This strange woman had the air of someone who knew exactly what she was doing - who knew exactly what everyone was doing - and, besides, what alternative did he have? Then he remembered the yoghurt pot. Does this mean anything? he said. Im certain it was dropped in the street after time stopped. She took the pot and examined it. Oh, she said casually. Ronnies been around, has he?

  Ronnie?

  Oh, we all know Ronnie.

  Whats that supposed to mean?

  Lets just say if he found your friend then your friend is going to be okay. Probably okay. More okay than he would be if just about anything else found him, at least. Look, this is not a time when you should be worrying about one person. Cold calculation, right? She stepped out into the street. Lobsang followed. Susan walked as if she owned the street. She scanned every alley and doorway, but not like a potential victim apprehensive of attackers. It seemed to Lobsang that she was disappointed to find nothing dangerous in the shadows. She reached the shop, stepped inside, and paused for a moment to regard the floating flower of broken glass. Her expression suggested that she considered it to be a perfectly normal kind

  of thing to find, and had seen far more interesting things. Then she walked on and stopped at the inner door. There was still a glow from the crack, but it was dimmer now. Settling down, she said. Shouldnt be too bad. . . but theres two people in here.

  Who?


  Wait, Ill open the door. And be careful. The door moved very slowly. Lobsang stepped into the workshop after the girl. The spinner began to speed up. The clock glowed in the middle of the floor, painful to look at. But he stared nevertheless. Its . . . its just as I imagined it, he said. Its the way to-

  Dont go near it, said Susan. Its uncertain death, believe me. Do pay attention. Lobsang blinked. The last couple of thoughts didnt seem to have belonged to him. What did you say?

  I said its uncertain death.

  Is that worse than certain death?

  Much. Watch. Susan picked up a hammer that was lying on the floor and poked it gently towards the clock. It vibrated in her hand when she brought it closer, and she swore under her breath as it was dragged from her fingers and vanished. Just before it did there was a brief, contracting ring around the clock that might have been something like a hammer would be if you rolled it very flat and bent it into a circle. Have you any idea why that happened? she said. No.

  Nor have I. Now imagine that you were the hammer. Uncertain death, see? Lobsang looked at the two frozen people. One was medium-sized and had all the right number of appendages to qualify as a member of the human race, and so therefore probably had to be given the benefit of the doubt. It was staring at the clock. So was the other figure, which was that of a middle-aged, sheep-faced man still holding a cup of tea and, as far as Lobsang could make out, a biscuit. The one who wouldnt win a beauty contest even if he was the only entrant is an Igor, said Susan. The other one is Dr Hopkins of the Clockmakers Guild here.

  So we know who built the clock, at least, said Lobsang.

  I dont think so. Mr Hopkinss workshop is several streets away. And he makes novelty watches for a rather strange kind of discerning customer. Its his speciality.

  Then the. . . Igor mustve built it?

  Good grief, no! Igors are professional servants. They never work for themselves.

  You seem to know a lot, said Lobsang, as Susan circled the clock like a wrestler trying to spy out a hold. Yes, she said, without turning her head. I do. The first clock broke. This ones holding. Whoever designed it was a genius.

  An evil genius?

  Its hard to say. I cant see any signs.

  What kind of signs?

  Well, “Hahaha!!!!!” painted on the side would be a definite clue, dont you think? she said, rolling her eyes. Im in your way, am I? said Lobsang. No, not at all, said Susan, turning her attention to the workbench. Well, theres nothing here. I suppose he could have set a timer. A sort of alarm clock- She stopped. She picked up a length of rubber hosepipe that was coiled on a hook by the glass jars and looked hard at it. Then she tossed it into a corner and stared at it as if she had never seen anything like it before. Dont say a word, she said quietly. They have some very acute senses. Just ease back among those big glass vats behind you and try to look inconspicuous. And do it NOW. The last word had odd harmonics to it and Lobsang felt his legs begin to move almost without his conscious control. The door moved a little and a man came in. What was strange about the face, Lobsang thought afterwards, was how unmemorable it was. Hed never seen a face so lacking in anything to mention. It had a nose and mouth and eyes, and they were all quite flawless, but somehow they didnt make up a face. They were just parts that made no proper whole. If they became anything at all it was the face of a statue, good looking but without anything looking out of it. Slowly, like someone who had to think about his muscles, the man turned to look at Lobsang. Lobsang felt himself bunch up to slice time. The spinner groaned a warning on his back.

 
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