Art Pact 125


The morning sun rose like a hot air balloon driven by a mad pilot, surging up and then falling back, sometimes climbing as much as 5 degrees in a few seconds then slowing down to a halt for half an hour so that sundials and clocks found themselves in violent disagreement, insofar as any disagreement between them had the capacity for extending into violence.

For Browns and Walter, waiting in the guard hut for their shift to be over, the wait was excruciating. They were allowed no clocks (Bullmeyer's orders), instead being relieved by the next team at the required time. They were therefore reduced to gauging the time by the progression of the sun in the sky and the makeshift scratches they had made on the guard-hut wall, and the solar disk's irregular motion made that impossible that morning.

"What the hell is going on?" Browns said, staring intently out of the window. Walter barely looked up - just enough that the rapidly moving sun managed to shoot a ray directly into his eyes, causing him to tut with annoyance and shield his face with one hairy-backed hand. "This isn't supposed to happen, is it?"

"Ignore it," Walter said.

"The sun's going up and down like a yo-you," Browns complained. "If there was ever a thing that needed to be paid attention to, this is it."

"It's just after attention, probably. Ignore it and it'll stop."

Browns turned and stared at his partner incredulously. His shadow fell across the newspaper Walter was trying to read. Walter raised his hand again and used it to wave Browns to one side - a direction Browns followed without thinking. As he settled himself again he realised what he had done and moved back into place, his face flushed with a cocktail of embarrassment and anger.

"What are we going to do about it?"

"What can we do? It's the sun. You want to go up there and fix it?"

"I'm not qualified," Browns muttered.

"Neither am I," said Walter. "So we just wait for someone to fix it for us. Just like we wait for someone to come and relieve us, just like we wait for whoever it is we're supposed to be keeping out of here."

"We could call it in," Browns suggested. Walter looked up at him, his eyes just visible under the prominent hedge of his eyebrows. "Someone has to call it in. Or how's it going to get fixed?" Walter continued staring him until Browns became uncomfortable and looked away. Confident that he had made his point, Walter returned to his paper.

Set adrift from any other way of judging the time, they fell back on idiosyncratic methods of measurement - Walter by his progress through the business pages, which he was reading mechanically, scanning each line and taking in the meaning before instantly forgetting it. The business section was six pages long, and on his days off he reckoned upon reading approximately one page every ten minutes in this fashion. It was not necessarily a particularly accurate means of telling the time, not least because of the unfortunate possibility that one story or another might catch his interest, slowing him down as his brain - against his best judgement - attempted to extract the meaning from the words that his eyes were doing their best to pass over. He used the business pages to prevent this as much as possible, but recently he had found that his tactic was failing, and using the pages finished as a progress bar had become increasingly inaccurate.

Brown's method was to count the cars passing by on the distant road. He kept two tallies in his head - one counting off by thousands on his fingers, the other recording every vehicle that occluded the opening between the to big buildings that faced the road and separated it from the car park. He had noticed, through long observation, that as the time grew closer for their relief shift to arrive the density of traffic increased in a reasonably predictable manner. Fifteen cars per minute meant that they were about half-way to the end of their shift, and when it went over a car per second the relief crew would inevitably be shambling around the corner - tall spindly Cruxman and squat ape-like Andrew Fellows (awarded two names in recognition of the fact that there was another Andrew and another Fellows, both of whom predated him in the company's employment rolls).

It seemed as though the sun had confused the commuters as much as them, though, for there was no smooth curve of increasing traffic detectable through Brown's computations, and it seemed a great possibility to him that Cruxman - lazy, shiftless Cruxman who had always hated Walter - would take advantage of the confusion to extend his own leisure time at their expense.

"We have to do something," he said. "I'm going to do it."

"Risky," Walter said, without looking up. His catchphrase, as Brown well knew. Meaning: don't.

"I have to do it. You can't talk me out of it." He put his hand on the phone, but his hesitation hinted to Walter that he was not only liable to persuasion but actively courting it. Walter read another line and forgot it just as quickly.

"Fair enough," he conceded.

"I have to let them know about the sun. I thought someone would have phoned it in by now, but look"--he pointed out at the traffic passing in the lighted column between the bulk of the two buildings--"there's folks driving to work, they don't know whether it's day or night."

"Fine, just so long as you're willing to wait here," Walter said, not bothering to look up. He wondered whether there was some more fundamental problem. After all, it was only they who were forbidden clocks. Surely each one of those passing cars had a clock on the dashboard.

"What do you mean?" Brown asked carefully.

"Someone will have to wait for the report crew to call back. About the sun. Who knows how long that will be?" He made a little tutting noise. "You might have to wait here with Cruxman."

"A fate worse than death," Browns said quietly.

Walter nodded.

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