The last continent, p.23
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       The Last Continent, p.23

         Part #22 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 23

 

  Clancy, after we get back to the station, go on into town and call in at the Pastoral Hotel and bring back as many corks as theyve got, willya? Think itll work, boss? He was as weird as . . . Clancy was pulled up by the look in his bosss eye. He was pretty weird, he said. Weird, yeah. But smart, too. No flies on him. Behind them, ifi the jumble of rocks and bushes at the end of the canyon, a drawing of a small horse became a drawing of a kangaroo and then faded into the stone.

  The worst thing about losing your temper with Mustrum Ridcully was that he never noticed when you did. Wizards, when faced with danger, would immediately stop and argue amongst themselves about exactly what kind of danger it was. By the time everyone in the party understood, either it had become the sort of danger where your options are so very, very clear that you instantly take one of them or die, or it had got bored and gone away. Even danger has its pride. When he was a boy, Ponder Stibbons had imagined that wizards would be powerful demi- gods able to change the whole world at the flick of a finger, and then hed grown up and found that they were tiresome old men who worried about the state of their feet and, in harms way, would even bicker about the origin of the phrase in harms way. It had never struck him that evolution works in all kinds of ways. There were still quite deep scars in old buildings that showed what happened when you had the other kind of wizard. His footsteps took him, almost without his being aware, along the gently winding path up the mountain. Strange creatures peered at him from the undergrowth on either side. Some of them looked like— Wizards think in terms of books, and, now, one crept out from the shelves of Ponders memory. It had been given to him when he was small. In fact, hed still got it somewhere, filed away in a cardboard box. [17] It had consisted of lots of small pages on a central spiral. Each one showed the head, body or tail of some bird, fish or animal. It was possible for the sufficiently bored to shuffle and turn them so that you got, say, a creature with the head of a horse, the body of a beetle and the tail of a fish. The cover promised hours of fun although, after the first three minutes, you couldnt help wondering what kind of person could make that kind of fun last for hours, and whether suffocating him as kindly as possible now would save the Serial Crimes Squad a lot of trouble in years to come. Ponder, however, had hours of fun. Some of the creat— things in the undergrowth looked like the pages of that book. There were birds with beaks as long as their bodies. There were spiders the size of hands. Here and there the air shimmered like water. It resisted very gently as Ponder tried to walk through it, and then let him pass, but the birds and insects didnt seem inclined to follow him. There were beetles everywhere. Eventually, by easy stages, the winding path reached the top of the mountain. There was a tiny valley there, just below the peak. At the far end was a large cave mouth, lit by a blue glow within. A large beetle sang past Ponders ear. The cave mouth opened into a cavern, filled with misty blue fog. There was a suggestion of complex shadows. And there were sounds -whistles, little zipping noises, the occasional thud or clang that suggested work going on somewhere in the mist.

  Ponder brushed aside a beetle that had landed on his cheek and stared at the shape right in front of him. It was the front half of an elephant. The other half of the elephant, balancing against all probability on the two legs at the rear end, stood a few yards away. In between was . . . the rest of the elephant. Ponder Stibbons told himself that if you cut an elephant in half and scooped out the middle, what you would get would be . . . well, mess. There wasnt much mess here. Pink and purple tubes had uncoiled neatly on to a workbench. A small stepladder led up into another complexity of tubes and bulky organs. There was a general feel of methodical work in progress. This wasnt the horror of an elephant in an explosive death. This was an elephant under construction. Little clouds of white light spiralled in from all corners of the cavern, spun for a moment, and became the god of evolution, who was standing on the stepladder. He blinked at Ponder. Oh, its you, he said. One of the pointy creatures. Can you tell me what happens when I do this? He reached inside the echoing depths of the front half. The elephants ears flapped. The ears flapped, squeaked Ponder. The god emerged, beaming. Its amazing how difficult that is to achieve, he said. Anyway . . . what do you think of it? Ponder swallowed. Its . . . very good, he managed. He took a step back, bumped into something, and turned and looked into the gaping maw of a very large shark. It was in the middle of another . . . well, he had to think of it as a sort of biological scaffolding. It rolled an eye at him. Behind it, a much bigger whale was being assembled. It is, isnt it? said the god. Ponder tried to concentrate on the elephant. Although— he said. Yes?

  Are you sure about the wheels? The god looked concerned. You think theyre too small? Not quite suitable for the veldt?

  Er, probably not . . .

  Its very hard to design an organic wheel, you know, said the god reproachfully. Theyre little masterpieces.

  You dont think just, you know, moving the legs about would be simpler?

  Oh, wed never get anywhere if I just copied earlier ideas, said the god. Diversify and fill all niches, thats the ticket.

  But is lying on your side in a mud hole with your wheels spinning a very important niche? said Ponder. The god looked at him, and then stared glumly at the half-completed elephant. Perhaps if I made the tyres bigger? he said, hopefully yet in a hopeless voice. I dont think so, said Ponder. Oh, youre probably right. The little gods hands twitched. I dont know, I do try to diversify, but sometimes its so difficult . . . Suddenly he ran across the crowded cave towards a huge pair of doors at the far end, and flung them open. Im sorry, but I just have to do one, said the god. They calm me down, you know. Ponder caught up. The cave beyond the doors was bigger than this one, and brilliantly lit. The air was full of small, bright things, hovering in their millions like beads on invisible strings. Beetles? said Ponder. Theres nothing like a beetle when youre feeling depressed! said the god. Hed stopped by a large metal desk and was feverishly opening drawers and pulling out boxes. Can you pass me that box of antennae? Its just on the shelf there. Oh yes, you cant beat a beetle when youre feeling down. Sometimes I think its what its all about, you know.

  What all? said Ponder. The god swept an arm in an expansive gesture. Everything, he said cheerfully. The whole thing. Trees, grass, flowers . . . What did you think it was all for?

  Well, I didnt think it was for beetles, said Ponder. What about, well, what about the elephant, for a start? The god already had a half-finished beetle in one hand. It was green. Dung, he said triumphantly. No head, when screwed on to a body, ought to make a sound like a cork being pushed into a bottle, but the beetles did in the hands of the god. What? said Ponder. Thats rather a lot of trouble to go to just for dung, isnt it?

  Thats ecology for you, Im afraid, said the god. No, no, that cant be right, surely? said Ponder. What about the higher lifeforms?

  Higher? said the god. You mean like . . . birds?

  No, I mean like— Ponder hesitated. The god had seemed remarkably incurious about the wizards, possibly because of their lack of resemblance to beetles, but he could see a certain amount of theological unpleasantness ahead. Like . . . apes, he said. Apes? Oh, very amusing, certainly, and obviously the beetles have to have something to entertain them, but . . . The god looked at him, and a celestial penny seemed to drop. Oh dear, you dont think theyre the purpose of the whole business, do you?

  Id rather assumed—

  Dear me, the purpose of the whole business, you see, is in fact to be the whole business. Although, he sniffed, if we can do it all with beetles I shant complain.

  But surely the purpose of— I mean, wouldnt it be nice if you ended up with some creature that started to think about the universe—?

  Good gravy, I dont want anything poking around! said the god testily. Theres enough patches and stitches in it as it is without some dever devil trying to find more, I can assure you. No, the gods on the mainland have got that right at least. Intelligence is like legs – too many and you trip
yourself up. Six is about the right number, in my view.

  But surely, ultimately, one creature might— The god let go of his latest creation. It whirred up and along the rows and rows of beetles and slotted itself in between two that were almost, but not exactly, quite like it. Worked that one out, have you? he said. Well, of course youre right. I can see you have quite an efficient brain— Damn. There was a little sparkle in the air and a bird appeared alongside the god. It was clearly alive but entirely stationary, hanging in frozen flight. A flickering blue glow hovered around it. The god sighed, reached into a pocket and pulled out the most complex-looking tool Ponder had ever seen. The bits that you could see suggested that there were other, even stranger bits that you couldnt and that this was probably just as well. However, he said, slicing the birds beak off, the blue glow simply closing over the hole, if Im going to get any serious work done Im really going to have to find some way of organizing the whole business. All Im faced with these days is bills.

  Yes, it must be quite expens—

  Big bills, short bills, bills for winkling insects out of bark, bills for cracking nuts, bills for eating fruit, the god went on. Theyre supposed to do their own evolving. I mean, thats the whole point. I shouldnt have to be running around all the time. The god waved his hand in the air and a sort of display stand of beaks appeared beside him. He selected one that, to Ponder, hardly looked any different from the one hed removed, and used the tool to attach it

  to the hanging bird. The blue glow covered it for a moment, and then the bird vanished. In the moment that it disappeared, Ponder thought he saw its wings begin to move. And in that moment he knew that, despite the apparent beetle fixation, here was where hed always wanted to be, at the cutting edge of the envelope in the fast lane of the state of the art. Hed become a wizard because hed thought that wizards knew how the universe worked, and Unseen University had turned out to be stifling. Take that business with the tame lightning. It had demonstrably worked. He made the Bursars hair stand on end and sparks crackle out of his finger, and that was by using only one cat and a couple of amber rods. His perfectly reasonable plan to use several thousand cats tied to a huge wheel that would rotate against hundreds of rods had been vetoed on the ridiculous grounds that it would be too noisy. His carefully worked out scheme to split the thaum, and thus provide end-less supplies of cheap clean magic, had been quite unfairly sat upon because it was felt that it might make the place untidy. And that was even after he had presented figures to prove that the chances of the process completely destroying the entire world were no greater than being knocked down while crossing the street, and it wasnt his fault he said this just before the six-cart pile-up outside the University. Here was a chance to do something that made sense. Besides, he thought he could see where the god was going wrong. Excuse me, he said, but do you need an assistant?

  Frankly, the whole thing is getting out of hand, said the god, who was a wizard-class non- listener. Its really getting to the point where I need an—

 
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