The last continent, p.14
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       The Last Continent, p.14

         Part #22 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 14

 

  Enjoy, said the Dean. Sensible survival strategy, said Ridcully. Up to a point. Ponder rolled his eyes. These things always sounded fine when he worked them out in his head. Hed read some of the old books, and sit and think for ages, and a little theory would put itself together in his head in a row of little shiny blocks, and then when he let it out itd run straight into the Faculty and one of them, one of them, would always ask some bloody stupid question which he couldnt quite answer at the moment. How could you ever make any progress against minds like that? If some god somewhere had said, Let there be light, theyd be the ones to say things like Why? The darkness has always been good enough for us. Old men, that was the trouble. Ponder was not totally enthusiastic about the old traditions, because he was well into his twenties and in a moderately important position and therefore, to some of the mere striplings in the University, a target. Or would have been, if they werent getting that boiled eyeball feeling by sitting up all night tinkering with Hex. He wasnt interested in promotion, anyway. Hed just be happy if people listened for five minutes, instead of saying, Well done, Mister Stibbons, but we tried that once and it doesnt

  work, or, We probably havent got the funding, or, worst of all, You dont get proper fill-in- nouns these days – remember old “nickname” ancient-wizard-who-died-fifty-years-ago-who- Ponder-wouldnt-possibly-be-able-to-remember? Now there was a chap who knew his fill-in- nouns. Above Ponder, he felt, were a lot of dead mens shoes. And they had living mens feet in them, and were stamping down hard. They never bothered to learn anything, they never bothered to remember anything apart from how much better things used to be, they bickered like a lot of children and the only one who ever said anything sensible said it in orang-utan. He prodded the fire viciously. The wizards had made Mrs Whitlow a polite crude hut out of branches and big woven leaves. She bade them goodnight and demurely pulled some leaves across the entrance behind her. A very respectable lady, Mrs Whitlow, said Ridcully. I think Ill turn in myself, too. There were already one or two sets of snores building up around the fire. I think someone ought to stand guard, said Ponder. Good man, muttered Ridcully, turning over. Ponder gritted his teeth and turned to the Librarian, who was temporarily back in the land of the bipedal and was sitting gloomily wrapped in a blanket. At least I expect this is a home from home for you, eh, sir? The Librarian shook his head. Would you be interested in hearing what else is odd about this place? said Ponder. Ook?

  The driftwood. No one listens to me, but its important. We must have dragged loads of stuff for the fire, and its all natural timber, do you notice that? No bits of plank, no old crates, no tatty old sandals. Just . . . ordinary wood.

  Ook?

  That means we must be a long way off the normal shipping . . . oh, no . . . dont . . . The Librarian wrinkled his nose desperately. Quickly! Concentrate on having arms and legs! I mean living ones! The Librarian nodded miserably, and sneezed.

  Awk? he said, when his shape had settled down again. Well, said Ponder sadly. At least youre animate. Possibly rather large for a penguin, though. I think its your bodys survival strategy. It keeps trying to find a stable shape that works.

  Awk?

  Funny it cant seem to do anything about the red hair . . . The Librarian glared at him, shuffled a little way along the beach, and sagged into a heap. Ponder looked around the fire. He seemed to be the man on watch, if only because no one else intended to do it. Well, wasnt that a surprise. Things twittered in the trees. Phosphorescence glimmered on the sea. The stars were coming out. He looked up at the stars. At least you could depend— And, suddenly, he saw what else was wrong. Archchancellor! So how long have you been mad? No, not a good start, really . . . It was quite hard to know how to open the conversation. So . . . I didnt expect dwarfs here, Rincewind said. Oh, the family blew in from NoThingfjord when I was a kid, said Mad. Meant to go down the coast a bit, storm got up, next thing were shipwrecked and up to our knees in parrots. Best thing that couldve happened. Back there Id be down some freezing cold mine picking bits of rock out of the walls but, over here, a dwarf can stand tall.

  Really, said Rincewind, his face carefully blank. But not too bloody tall! Mad went on. Certainly not.

  So we settled down, and now my dads got a chain of bakeries in Bugarup.

  Dwarf bread? said Rincewind. Too right! Thats what kept us going across thousands of miles of shark-infested ocean, said Mad. If we hadnt had that sack of dwarf bread wed—

  —never have been able to club the sharks to death? said Rincewind.

  Ah, youre a man who knows your breads.

  Big place, Bugarup? Has it got a harbour?

  People say so. Never been back there. I like the outdoor life. The ground trembled. The trees by the track shook, even though there was no wind. Sounds like a storm, said Rincewind. Whats one of them?

  You know, said Rincewind. Rain.

  Aw, strain the flaming cows, you dont believe all that stuff, do you? My granddad used to go on about that when hed been at the beer. Its just an old story. Water falling out of the sky? Do me a favour!

  It never does that here?

  Course not!

  Happens quite a lot where I come from, said Rincewind. Yeah? Hows it get up into the sky, then? Waters heavy.

  Oh, it . . . it . . . I think the sun sucks it up. Or something.

  How?

  I dont know. It just happens.

  And then it drops out of the sky?

  Yes!

  For free?

  Havent you ever seen rain?

  Look, everyone knows all the waters deep underground. Thats only sense. Its heavy stuff, it leaks down. I never seen it floating around in the air, mate.

  Well, how do you think it got on the ground in the first place? Mad looked astonished. How do mountains get on the ground? he said. What? Theyre just there!

  Oh, so they dont drop out of the sky?

  Of course not! Theyre much heavier than air!

  And water isnt? Ive got a coupla drums of it under the cart and youd sweat to lift em.

  Arent there any rivers here?

  Course weve got rivers! This countrys got everything, mate!

  Well, how do you think the water gets into them? Mad looked genuinely puzzled. Whatd we want water in the rivers for? Whatd it do?

  Flow out to sea—

  Bloody waste! Thats what you let it do where you come from, is it?

  You dont let it, it . . . happens . . . its what rivers do! Mad gave Rincewind a long hard look. Yep. And they call me mad, he said. Rincewind gave up. There wasnt a cloud in the sky. But the ground shook again. Archchancellor Ridcully glared at the sky as if it was doing this to upset him personally. What, not one? he said. Technically, not a single familiar constellation, said the Chair of Indefinite Studies frantically. Weve counted three thousand, one hundred and ninety-one constellations that could be called the Triangle, for example, but the Dean says some of them dont count because they use the same stars— Theres not a single star I recognize, said the Senior Wrangler. Ridcully waved his hands in the air. They change a bit all the time, he said. The Turtle swims through space and—

  Not this fast! said the Dean. The dishevelled wizards looked up at the rapidly crowding night. Discworld constellations changed frequently as the world moved through the void, which meant that astrology was cutting-edge research rather than, as elsewhere, a clever way of avoiding a proper job. It was amazing how human traits and affairs could so reliably and continuously be guided by a succession of big balls of plasma billions of miles away, most of whom have never even heard of humanity. Were marooned on some other world! moaned the Senior Wrangler.

  Er . . . I dont think so, said Ponder. Youve got a better suggestion, I suppose?

  Er . . . you see that big patch of stars over there? The wizards looked at the large cluster twinkling near the horizon. Very pretty, said Ridcully. Well?

  I think its what we call the Small Boring Group of Faint Stars. Its about the right sha
pe, said Ponder. And I know what youre going to say, sir, youre going to say, “But theyre just a blob in the sky, not a patch on the blobs we used to get,” sir, but, you see, thats what they might have looked like when Great ATuin was much closer to them, thousands of years ago. In other words, sir, Ponder drew a deep breath, in dread of everything that was to come, I think weve travelled backwards in time. For thousands of years. And that was the other side of the odd thing about wizards. While they were quite capable of spending half an hour arguing that it could not possibly be Tuesday, theyd take the outrageous in their pointy-shoed stride. The Senior Wrangler even looked relieved. Oh, is that it? he said. Bound to happen eventually, said the Dean. Its not written down anywhere that these holes connect to the same time, after all.

  Going to make gettin back a bit tricky, said Ridcully. Er . . . Ponder began. It might not be so simple as that, Archchancellor.

  You mean as simple as finding a way to move through time and space?

  I mean there might not be any there to go back to, said Ponder. He shut his eyes. This was going to be difficult, he knew it. Of course there is, said Ridcully. We were there only this morn— Only yesterday. That is to say, yesterday thousands of years in the future, naturally.

  But if were not careful we might alter the future, you see, said Ponder. The mere presence of us in the past might alter the future. We might already have altered history. Its vital that I tell you this.

  Hes got a point, Ridcully, said the Dean. Was there any of that rum left, by the way?

  Well, there isnt any history happening here, said Ridcully. Its just an odd little island.

  Im afraid tiny actions anywhere in the world may have huge ramifications, sir, said Ponder. We certainly dont want any ramifications. Well, whats your point? What do you advise?

  It had been going so well. They almost seemed up to speed. This may have been what caused Ponder to act like the man who, having so far fallen a hundred feet without any harm, believes that the last few inches to the ground will be a mere formality. To use the classic metaphor, the important thing is not to kill your own grandfather, he said, and smacked into the bedrock. What the hell would I want to do that for? said Ridcully. I quite liked the old boy.

  No, of course, I mean accidentally, said Ponder. But in any case—

  Really? Well, as you know, I accidentally kill people every day, said Ridcully. Anyway, I dont see him around—

  Its just an illustration, sir. The problem is cause and effect, and the point is— The point, Mister Stibbons, is that you suddenly seem to think everyone comes over all fratricidal when they go back in time. Now, if Id met my grandfather Id buy him a drink and tell him not to assume that snakes wont bite if you shout at them in a loud voice, information which he might come to thank me for in later life.

  Why? said Ponder. Because he would have some later life, said Ridcully. No, sir, no! Thatd be worse than shooting him!

  It would?

  Yes, sir!

  I think there may be one or two steps in your logic that I have failed to grasp, Mister Stibbons, said the Archchancellor coldly. I suppose youre not intending to shoot your own grandfather, by any chance?

  Of course not! snapped Ponder. I dont even know what he looked like. He died before I was born.

 
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