Thief of Time
Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

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Thief of Time



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Thief of Time

Copyright © 2001 by Terry and Lyn Pratchett

For something to exist, it has to be observed.

For something to exist, it has to have a position in time and space.

And this explains why nine-tenths of the mass of the universe is unaccounted for.

Nine-tenths of the universe is the knowledge of the position and direction of everything in the other tenth. Every atom has its biography, every star its file, every chemical change its equivalent of the inspector with a clipboard. It is unaccounted for because it is doing the accounting for the rest of it, and you cannot see the back of your own head.

Nine-tenths of the universe, in fact, is the paperwork.

And they believed that for a thing to exist it had to have a position in time and space. Humanity had arrived as a nasty shock. Humanity practically was things that didn’t have a position in time and space, such as imagination, pity, hope, history, and belief. Take those away and all you had was an ape that fell out of trees a lot.

Intelligent life was, therefore, an anomaly. It made the filing untidy.



The first question they ask is: “Why was he eternally surprised?”

And they are told: “Wen considered the nature of time and understood that the universe is, instant by instant, re-created anew. Therefore, he understood, there is, in truth, no Past, only a memory of the Past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, he said, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.”

They were not bad men. They had worked hard on behalf of the valley for hundreds of years. But it is possible, after a while, to develop certain dangerous habits of thought. One is that, while all important enterprises need careful organization, it is the organization that needs organizing, rather than the enterprise. And another is that tranquillity is always a good thing.

Obviously, he reasoned, if sticking screws up your nose was madness, then numbering them and keeping them in careful compartments was sanity, which was the opposite—

Ah. No. It wasn’t, was it . . .



Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea. It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn’t live in it all the time. Besides, it always made his skin wrinkle.



“Only I thought the rule was that all monks were shaved.”

“Oh, Soto says he is bald under the hair,” said Lu-Tze. “He says the hair is a separate creature that just happens to live on him. They gave him a field posting really quickly after he came up with that one. Hardworking fellow, mind you, and friendly as anything provided you don’t touch his hair. Important lesson there: you don’t survive in the field by obeying all the rules, including those relating to mental processes.”

[...] there were, in fact, five elements, as they had been taught. Four made up the universe, and the fifth, Surprise, allowed it to keep on happening.

“Things either exist or they don’t,” said Jeremy. “I am very clear about that. I have medicine.”

Listening was an art he had developed over the years, having learned that if you listened hard and long enough people would tell you more than they thought they knew.

“No one would be that stu—”

Susan stopped. Of course someone would be that stupid. Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying, “End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH,” the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.

A chocolate you did not want to eat does not count as chocolate. This discovery is from the same branch of culinary physics that determined that food eaten while walking along contains no calories.



“The wise man does not seek enlightenment, he waits for it. So while I was waiting, it occurred to me that seeking perplexity might be more fun,” said Lu-Tze. “After all, enlightenment begins where perplexity ends.”

“Yeah, I know all about practicing procedures for emergencies,” said Lu-Tze. “And there’s always something missing.”

“Ridiculous! We take great pains to—”

“You always leave out the damn emergency.”

“Tactical decision made by the man on the spot, Your Reverence. It was more what you might call an interpretation of your order,” said Lu-Tze.

“You mean, going where you had distinctly been told not to go and doing what you were absolutely forbidden to do?”

“Yes, Your Reverence. Sometimes you have to move the seesaw by pushing the other end.”

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.”



The Auditors could see into human minds. They could see the pop and sizzle of the thoughts. But they could not read them. They could see the energies flow from node to node, they could see the brain glittering like a Hogswatch decoration. What they couldn’t see was what was happening.

“Well, I just . . . I thought . . . well, I just thought you’d be teaching me more, that’s all.”

“I’m teaching you things all the time,” said Lu-Tze. “You might not be learning them, of course.”



In the Second Scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised, a story is written concerning one day when the apprentice Clodpool, in a rebellious mood, approached Wen and spake thusly:

“Master, what is the difference between a humanistic, monastic system of belief in which wisdom is sought by means of an apparently nonsensical system of questions and answers, and a lot of mystic gibberish made up on the spur of the moment?”

Wen considered this for some time, and at last said: “A fish!”

And Clodpool went away, satisfied.



You had to hand it to human beings. They had one of the strangest powers in the universe. Even her grandfather had remarked on it. No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom. Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them up the evolutionary ladder. [...]

And along with this had come the contrary power, to make things normal. The world changed mightily, and within a few days humans considered it was normal. The had the most amazing ability to shut out and forget what didn’t fit.

Of course, there had been plenty of diseases, long before humans had been around. But humans had definitely created Pestilence. They had a genius for crowding together, for poking around in jungles, for setting the midden so handily next to the well. Pestilence was, therefore, part human, with all that this entailed.

The brain itself did its own thinking!

That was the hardest part. The bag of soggy tissue behind the eyes worked away independently of its owner. It took in information from the senses, and checked them against memory, and presented options. Sometimes the hidden parts of it even fought for control of the mouth! Humans weren’t individuals, they were, each one, a committee!

Some of the other members of the committee were dark and red and entirely uncivilized. They had joined the brain before civilization; some of them had got aboard even before humanity. And the bit that did the joined-up thinking had to fight, in the darkness of the brain, to get the casting vote!

Sometimes the gods have no taste at all. They allow sunrises and sunsets in ridiculous pink and blue hues that any professional artist would dismiss as the work of some enthusiastic amateur who’d never looked at a real sunset. This was one of those sunrises. It was the kind of sunrise a man rises and looks at and says, “No real sunrise could paint the sky Surgical Appliance Pink.”

Nevertheless, it was beautiful.*

* But not tasteful.



“Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”
Humans had created Famine, too. Oh, there had always been droughts and locusts, but for a really good famine, for fertile land to be turned into a dust bowl by stupidity and avarice, you needed humans.

It’s in the darkness where your eyes can’t see. The universe becomes two halves, and you live in the half behind the eyes. Once you have a body, you have a “me.”

I have seen galaxies die. I have watched atoms dance. But until I had the dark behind the eyes, I didn’t know the death from the dance. And we were wrong. When you pour water into a jug, it becomes jug-shaped and it is not the same water anymore.

“Heroes have a very strange grasp of elementary maths, you know. If you’d smashed the clock before it struck, everything would have been fine. Now the world has stopped, and we’ve been invaded, and we’re 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.”



Susan was sensible. It was, she knew, a major character flaw. It did not make you popular, or cheerful, and—this seemed to her to be the most unfair bit—it didn’t even make you right. But it did make you definite, and she was definite that what was happening around here was not, in any accepted sense, real.

That was not in itself a problem. Most of the things humans busied themselves with weren’t real, either. But sometimes the mind of the most sensible person encountered something so big, so complex, so alien to all understanding, that it told itself little stories about it instead. Then, when it felt it understood the story, it felt it understood the huge incomprehensible thing. And this, Susan knew, was her mind telling itself a story.



Koan ninety-seven: “Do unto otters as you would have them do unto you.” Hmm. No real help there. Besides, he’d occasionally been unsure that he’d written that one down properly, although it certainly had worked. He’d always left aquatic mammals well alone, and they had done the same to him.



Ankh-Morpork people, said the guild, were hearty, no-nonsense folk who did not want chocolate that was stuffed with cocoa liquor and were certainly not like effete la-di-dah foreigners who wanted cream in everything. In fact, they actually preferred chocolate made mostly from milk, sugar, suet, hooves, lips, miscellaneous squeezings, rat droppings, plaster, flies, tallow, bits of tree, hair, lint, spiders, and powdered cocoa husks. This meant that, according to the food standards of the great chocolate centers in Borogravia and Quirm, Ankh-Morpork chocolate was formally classed as “cheese” and only escaped, through being the wrong color, being defined as “tile grout.”



Wizards and philosophers had found Chaos, which is Kaos with his hair combed and a tie on, and had found in the epitome of disorder a new order undreamed of. There are different kinds of rules. From the simple comes the complex, and from the complex comes a different kind of simplicity. Chaos is order in a mask . . .

Chaos. Not dark, ancient Kaos, left behind by the evolving universe, but new, shiny Chaos, dancing in the heart of everything. The idea was strangely attractive.


“And if that doesn’t work?” said Pestilence.

Death gathered up Binky’s reins. [...]




“You know, that’s why I’ve never liked philosophers,” she said. “They make it all sound grand and simple, and then you step out into a world that’s full of complications.”



“What will you do?” said Susan.

“Lie,” said Lu-Tze happily. “It’s amazing how often that works.”



“The thing is . . . I mean, there’s times when you look at the universe and you think ‘What about me?’ and you can just hear the universe replying, ‘Well, what about you?’ ”

People learn things as they grow up, things that never get written down.

He was sitting by the side of the street, watching carefully, with his begging bowl in front of him. There were, of course, far more interesting and complex ways for a history monk to avoid being noticed, but he’d adopted the begging-bowl method ever since Lu-Tze had shown him that people never see anyone who wants them to give him money.

Everyone has a conditional clause in their life, some little unspoken addition to the rules like, “Except when I really need to,” or “Unless no one is looking,” or, indeed, “Unless the first one was nougat.”

text checked (see note T) Mar 2010

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