Phlebitis, doomed sailor, sat in the waiting room and felt impatient. Somewhere beyond the reception desk, through at least three doors and down corridors that were carpeted in beige and painted in blue and left the traveller with the feeling that they were the only thing left on earth, was Justice Aburton. Who was keeping him waiting, in the appropriately named room, for reasons that Phlebitis suspected were entirely selfish.
On the wall, a clock made of toast ticked quietly, measuring out the seconds, minutes and hours with three hands, each looking as though it were ashamed of its companions and was reluctant to spend time in their company. The hands tried to stay maximally separated, meaning that the clock currently claimed that the time was 30 seconds past ten past two, and had been just five minutes earlier twenty-five seconds past five past nine. Phlebitis could understand the use of toast as the outer body of the clock as it was disposable, replaceable, and edible if the mood took you. He spent months at a time on board his ship, hauling boiled frogs, or willow-drug statues, or little jade figurines that were probably cursed, and appreciated things that had a use but could also be eaten when the only alternative was boiled frog or the cabin boy.
The receptionist lifted her head from the magazine she was reading and smiled vacantly at Phlebitis. Her pupils were dilated, and the whites of her eyes were mostly yellow.
“He will see you now,” she said, her voice dreamy and quiet. “He says he will apologise for keeping you waiting if you can only show him how late he is.” Phlebitis snorted at that; Justice Aburton was famous for making seemingly penitent offers if the injured party could only do three impossible things before breakfast.
“The usual way?” he asked, gesturing towards the door behind reception.
“Yes,” replied the receptionist, her focus sliding back towards her magazine. “Please don’t kick the echidna on your way.”
I don’t even know what one of thsoe is, thought Phlebitis, but he nodded and smiled, and made his way to the door.
Beyond was the beige, earth-like carpet of the corridors, and the walls and ceiling were painted sky-blue, and Phlebitis remembered walking on a honey-coloured beach one morning just after sunrise, wondering how he was going to escape from the wretched desert island. He shivered; he’d learned a lot about what he was capable of in those three weeks.
The corridors seemed to run on interminably, and there too few doors into rooms for the length of the corridors. For them to be sensibly sized the rooms that were there would have to be the size of football pitches at least. He walked down them, knowing the route by heart and turning at all the right places without having to count doors or paces, arriving at the door with the little brass nameplate on it: Justice Aburton. He knocked.
“Come in,” came a heavy-sounding, tired voice. “Come in, come in. I haven’t got all day to wait while you figure out a door-handle. Ah Phlebitis,” as Phlebitis opened the door, “come in. I’ve been told I should be expecting you.”
“I made an appointment, yes,” said Phlebitis, closing the door behind him. “I wasn’t expecting you to honour it though.”
“You killed two of my insurance inspectors last time you were here.”
“I left the Unreal City without anyone telling me that you had men hidden in my frog-boiling barrels.”
Neither man sounded angry, they were just stating facts. For a moment there was silence between them, and then the Justice, a brown-haired man with a face as wrinkled as an old potato (and with little green patches), tapped a finger on some documents on his desk.
“It says here,” he said, tapping again for emphasis, “that you wish to leave harbour with some withered stumps of time.”
“I am trading in clocks and watches this time round,” said Phlebitis. “The frog-farmers have finally developed astronomy and want access to timepieces to improve their harvest.”
“So they tell me.” Phlebitis had his own doubts that frogs and watches worked well together, but he couldn’t see how a clock would build a weapon, so he wasn’t worried about this new trade demand.
“It seems unlikely,” muttered the Justice. He turned pages of a document, the papers held together by a clip in the corner, while Phlebitis looked at the three frames hanging on the wall behind him. Two contained certificates, of Law and Philosophy, and the third contained a picture of a young man, who might just have been the Justice, proudly holding up a fish as long as his body. Phlebitis, who knew how heavy fish were, thought the picture had been faked.
“But you have withered stumps of time,” said the Justice, pointing at a page. Phlebitis leaned in a little to see it and realised that it was a copy of his manifest. He read the line that the Justice was stabbing a finger at, and frowned.
“Those are integral sticks,” he said. “I got them from Madame Genevieve, who’s government-sponsored and possibly has links to the City Directors–“ Justice Aburton glared at him so hard when he said that that he had to stop and swallow before continuing, ”– and she said nothing about there being export problems.”
“The integral sticks form a clock of sort,” said the Justice. “There aren’t normally issues with them, but you’re taking them to a new destination, and we don’t really know what they want them for.”
“You just said yourself that clocks aren’t an issue going to frog-farmers!” Phlebitis felt like he was being jerked around like a marionette by some petty mandarin.
“Most clocks don’t contain reservoirs of time!”
Justice Aburton was white faced save for two burning red spots in his cheeks, and he was half out of his seat, leaning forward on his knuckles on his desk. His breath was short, panting.
“What?” Phlebitis felt a sudden chill run down his spine, and he struggled not to shiver.
“They are withered stumps of time,” said the Justice. “As they grow they contain time within their cells, and then when they sporulate they die. Their time is released into their spores, which grow rapidly into young plants, getting past the most dangerous part of their lives in the blink of an eye as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But if the plants don’t sporulate for some reason, possibly because humans have intervened and prevented it, the time is never released and is held still in the dead and withered stumps when the plant dies from other means. You can then crush the plant to release that time into one burst.”
“That sounds dangerous,” said Phlebitis. “To everyone.”
“It is,” said the Justice. “So I must abjure you from taking them as cargo.”
“Yes, of course,” said Phlebitis, suddenly placid and eager to help. Although the Justice eyed him a little suspiciously, they finished the documentation in just fifteen minutes, and then Phlebitis was free to leave again. He walked back through the corridors deep in thought, wondering how he could hide the fact that he’d already shipped four cargoes of the withered stumps of time to the frog-farmers.