The last continent, p.27
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       The Last Continent, p.27

         Part #22 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 27

 

  Really? I thought perhaps animals and birds would be more up your . . . up your . . . The god waved his hands vaguely. Up whatever you walk on. Where you live.

  Well, yes, but theyre a bit limited, arent they? said Ponder. The god beamed. Theres nothing like being near a happy god. Its like giving your brain a hot bath. Exactly! he said. Limited! The very word! Each one stuck in some desert or jungle or mountain, relying on one or two foods, at the mercy of every vagary of the universe and wiped out by the merest change of climate. What a terrible waste!

  Thats right! said Ponder. What you need is a creature that is resourceful and adaptable, am I right?

  Oh, very well put, Ponder! I can see youve turned up at just the right time! A pair of huge doors swung open in front of them, revealing a circular room with a shallow pyramid of steps in the centre. At the summit was another cloud of blue mist, in which occasional lights flared and died. The future unrolled in front of Ponder Stibbons. His eyes were so bright that his glasses steamed, that he could probably scorch holes in thin paper. Oh, right . . . what more could any natural philosopher dream of? Hed got the theories, now he could do the practice. And this time itd be done properly. To hell with messing up the future! Thats what the future was for. Oh, hed been against it, that was true, but itd been . . . well, when someone else was thinking of doing it. But now hed got the ear of a god, and maybe some intelligence could be applied to the task of creating intelligence. For a start, it ought to be possible to put together the human brain so that long beards werent associated with wisdom, which would instead be seen to reside in those who were young and skinny and required glasses for close work. And . . . youve finished this? he said, as they climbed the steps. Broadly, yes, said the god. My greatest achievement. Frankly, it makes the elephants look very flimsy by comparison. But theres plenty of fine detail left to do, if you think youre up to it.

  Itd be an honour, said Ponder. The blue mist was right in front of him. By the look of the sparks, something very important was happening in there. Do you give them any instructions before you let them out? he said, his breathing shallow. A few simple ones, said the god. He waved a wrinkled hand, and the glowing ball began to contract. Mostly they work things out themselves.

  Of course, of course, said Ponder. And I suppose if they go wrong we could always put them right with a few commandments.

  Not really necessary, said the god, as the blue ball vanished and revealed the pinnacle of creation. I find very simple instructions are quite sufficient. You know . . . “Head for dark places,” that sort of thing. There! Isnt it perfect? What a piece of work! The sun will burn out, the seas will dry up, but this chap will be there, you mark my— Hello? Ponder? The Dean wet a finger and held it up. We have the wind on our starboard beam, he said. Thats good, is it? said the Senior Wrangler. Could be, could be. Lets hope it can take us to this continent he mentioned. Im getting nervous of islands. Ridcully finished hacking through the stem of the boat and threw it overboard. At the top of the green mast the trumpet-like blooms appeared to tremble in the wind. The leaf sail creaked slowly into a different position. Id say this was a miracle of nature, said the Dean, if we hadnt just met the person who did it. Rather spoils it, that. While wizards were not generally adventurous, they did understand that a vital part of any great undertaking is the securing of adequate provisions, which is why the boat was noticeably heavier in the water. The Dean selected a natural cigar, lit it, and made a face. Not the best, he said. Rather green.

  Well just have to rough it, said Ridcully. What are you doing, Senior Wrangler?

  Just preparing a little tray for Mrs Whitlow. A few choice things. The wizards glanced towards the crude awning theyd erected towards the prow. It wasnt that shed actually asked for it. It was simply that shed made some remark about how hot the sun was, as anyone might, and suddenly wizards were getting in each others way as they vied with one another to cut poles and weave palm leaves. Perhaps never has so much intellectual effort gone into building a sunshade, which might have accounted for the wobble. I thought it was my turn to do that, said the Dean, coldly. No, Dean, you took her the fruit drink, if you remember, said the Senior Wrangler, cutting a cheese nut into dainty segments. That was just one small drink! the Dean snapped. Youre doing a whole tray. Look, youve even done a flower arrangement in a coconut shell!

  Mrs Whitlow likes that sort of thing, said the Senior Wrangler calmly. But she did say it was still a bit warm, so possibly you can fan her with a palm leaf while I peel these grapes for her.

  Once again it is left to me to point out the elementary unfairness, said the Dean. Merely waving a leaf is a very menial activity compared to removing grape skins, and I happen to outrank you. Senior Wrangler.

  Indeed, Dean? And exactly how do you work that out?

  Its not my opinion, man, its written into the Faculty structure!

  Of where, precisely?

  Have you gone totally Bursar? Unseen University, of course!

  And where is that, exactly? said the Senior Wrangler, carefully arranging some lilies in a pleasing design. Ye gods, man, its . . . its . . . The Dean flapped a hand in the direction of the horizon, and his voice trailed off as certain facts of time and space bore in on him. Ill leave you to work it out, shall I? said the Senior Wrangler, getting off his knees and raising the tray reverentially. Ill help! shouted the Dean, lumbering to his feet. Its very light, I assure you—

  No, no, I cant let you do it all by yourself! Each holding the tray with one hand, and trying to push the other man away with the spare hand, they lurched forward, leaving a trail of spilt coconut milk and petals. Ridcully rolled his eyes. It must be the heat, he thought. He turned to the Chair of Indefinite Studies, who was trying to tie a short log to a long stick with a piece of creeper. I was just thinking, he said, that everyones gone a little bit mad except me and you . . . Er, what are you doing there?

  I was just wondering whether Mrs Whitlow might like a game of croquet, said the Chair. He waggled his eyebrows conspiratorially. The Archchancellor sighed and wandered off along the deck. The Librarian had gone back to being a deckchair as a suitable mode for shipboard life, and the Bursar had gone to sleep on him. The big leaf moved slightly. Ridcully got the feeling that the green trumpets on the mast were sniffing. The wizards were already a little way from shore, but he saw the column of dust come down the track. It stopped at the beach and became a dot, which plunged into the sea. The sail creaked again, and flapped as the wind grew.

  Ahoy there! shouted Ridcully. The distant figure waved for a moment and then continued swimming. Ridcully filled his pipe and watched with interest as Ponder Stibbons caught up with the boat. Very well swum, if I may say so, he said. Permission to come aboard, sir? said Ponder, treading water. Could you throw down a creeper?

  Why, certainly. The Archchancellor puffed his pipe as the wizard climbed aboard. Possibly a record time over that distance, Mister Stibbons.

  Thank you, sir, said Ponder, dripping water on the deck. And may I congratulate you on being properly dressed. You are wearing your pointy hat, which is the sine qua non of a wizard in public.

  Thank you, sir.

  It is a good hat.

  Thank you, sir. They say a wizard without his hat is undressed, Mister Stibbons.

  So I have heard, sir.

  But in your case, I must point out, you are with your hat but you are still, in a very real sense, undressed.

  I thought the robe would slow me down, sir.

  And, while it is good to see you, Stibbons, albeit rather more of you than I would usually care to contemplate, I am moved to ask why you are, in fact, here.

  I suddenly felt it would be unfair to deprive the University of my services, sir.

  Really? A sudden rush of nostalgia for the old alma mater, eh?

  You could say that, sir. Ridcullys eyes twinkled behind the smoke and, not for the first time, Ponder suspected that the man was sometimes rather cleverer than
he appeared. It would not be hard. The Archchancellor shrugged, removed his pipe, and poked around inside it to remove a particularly obstructive clinker.

  The Senior Wranglers bathing costume is around somewhere, he said. I should put it on, if I were you. I suspect that offending Mrs Whitlow at the moment will get you hanged. All right? And if there is anything you want to talk about, my door is always open.

  Thank you, sir.

  Right now, of course, I dont have a door.

  Thank you, sir.

  Imagine it as being open, nevertheless.

  Thank you, sir. After all, Ponder thought as he slipped gratefully away, the wizards of UU were merely crazy. Not even the Bursar was insane. Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could still see the God of Evolution beaming so happily as the cockroach stirred. Rincewind rattled the bars. Dont I get a trial? he shouted. After a while a warder wandered along the corridor. Whadyew want a trial for, mister?

  What? Well, call me Mister Silly, but it might just prove that I wasnt trying to steal the damn sheep, mightnt it? said Rincewind. I was in fact rescuing it. If only you people would track down the thief, hed tell you! The warder leaned against the wall and stuck his hands in his belt. Yeah, well, its a funny thing, he said, but. yknow, we searched and searched and put up notices and everything but, funny thing, yewll never believe this, the bastard hasnt had the decency to come forward? Makes yew despair of human nature, eh?

  So whats going to happen to me? The warder scratched his nose. Gonna hang you by the neck until youre dead, mate. Tomorrow morno.

  You couldnt perhaps just hang me by the neck until Im sorry?

  No, mate. Got to be dead.

  Good grief, it was only a sheep when alls said and done! The warder grinned widely. Ah, a lot of men have gone to the gallows sayin that in the past, he said,

  smatterofact, youre the first sheep-stealer weve had here for years. All our big heroes have been sheep-stealers. Youre gonna get a big crowd.

  Baah!

  Maybe a flock, too, said the warder. Thats another thing, said Rincewind. Whys this sheep in my cell?

  Evidence, mate. Rincewind looked down at the sheep. Oh. Well, no worries, then. The warder wandered off. Rincewind sat down on the bunk. Well, he could look on the bright side, couldnt he? This was civilization. He hadnt seen much of it, what with being tied across the back of a horse and everything, but what hed been able to see was full of ruts and hoofprints and smelled pretty bad, which civilization often does. They were going to hang him in the morning. This building was the first one made of stone hed seen in this country. They had watchmen, even. They were going to hang him in the morning. There were the sounds of carts and people filtering in through the high window. They were going to hang him in the morning. He gazed around the cell. It looked as though whoeverd built it had unaccountably forgotten to include any useful trapdoors. Trapdoors . . . Now there was a word he shouldnt think about. Hed been in nastier places than this. Much, much nastier. And that made it worse, because hed been up against nasty, weird and magical things which suddenly seemed a lot easier to contemplate than the fact that he was held in some stone box and in the morning some perfectly nice people who he might quite like if he met them in a bar were going to march him out and make him stand on a really unsafe floor in a very tight collar. Baah!

 
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