The last continent, p.4
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       The Last Continent, p.4

         Part #22 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 4

 

  Er . . . itd take months to set it up properly, if you want him back right here, said Ponder. If we get it wrong hell end up arriving in a circle fifty feet wide. Thats not a problem, is it? If we keep out of it he can land anywhere.

  I dont think you quite understand, sir. The signal to noise ratio of any thaumic transfer over an uncertain distance, coupled with the Discs own spin, will almost certainly result in a practical averaging of the arriving subject over an area of a couple of thousand square feet at least, sir.

  Say again? Ponder took a deep breath. I mean hell end up arriving as a circle. Fifty feet wide.

  Ah. So he probably wouldnt be very good in the Library after that, then.

  Only as a very large bookmark, sir.

  All right, then, its down to sheer geography. Whove we got who knows anything about geography? The miners emerged from the vertical shaft like ants leaving a burning nest. There were thumps and thuds from below, and at one point Strewths hat shot up into the air, turned over a few times and dropped back. There was silence for a while and then, bits cracking off it like errant pieces of shell on a newly hatched chick, the thing pulled itself out of the shaft and . . . . . . looked around it. The miners, crouched behind various bushes and sheds, were quite certain of this, even though the monster had no visible eyes. It turned, its hundreds of little legs moving rather stiffly, as if theyd spent too much time buried in the ground. Then, weaving slightly, it set off. And far away in the shimmering red desert, the man in the pointy hat climbed carefully out of his hole. He held in both hands a bowl made of bark. It contained . . . lots of vitamins, valuable protein and essential fats. See? No mention of wriggling at all. A fire was smouldering a little way away. He put the bowl down carefully and picked up a large stick, stood quietly for a moment and then suddenly began to hop around the fire, smacking the ground with the stick and shouting, Hah! When the ground had been subdued to his apparent satisfaction he whacked at the bushes as if they had personally offended him, and bashed a couple of trees as well. Finally he advanced on a couple of flat rocks, lifted up each one in turn, averted his eyes, shouted, Hah! again and flailed blindly at the ground beneath. The landscape having been acceptably pacified, he sat down to eat his supper before it escaped. It tasted a little like chicken. When you are hungry enough, practically anything can. And eyes watched him from the nearby water-hole. They were not the tiny eyes of the swarming beetles and tadpoles that made a careful examination of every handful he drank a

  vital gastronomic precaution. These were far older eyes, and currently without any physical component. For weeks a man whose ability to find water was limited to checking if his feet were wet had survived in this oven-ready country by falling into waterholes. A man who thought of spiders as harmless little creatures had experienced only a couple of nasty shocks when, by now, this approach should have left him with arms the size of beer barrels that glowed in the dark. The man had even hit the seashore once and paddled in a little way to look at the pretty blue jellyfish, and it was all the watcher could do to see that he got a mere light sting which ceased to be agonizing after only a few days. The waterhole bubbled and the ground trembled as if, despite the cloudless sky, there was a storm somewhere. Now it was three oclock in the morning. Ridcully was good at doing without other peoples sleep. Unseen University was much bigger on the inside. Thousands of years as the leading establishment of practical magic in a world where dimensions were largely a matter of chance in any case had left it bulging in places where it shouldnt have places. There were rooms containing rooms which, if you entered them, turned out to contain the room youd started with, which can be a problem if you are in a conga line. And because it was so big it could afford to have an almost unlimited number of staff on the premises. Tenure was automatic or, more accurately, non-existent. You found an empty room, turned up for meals as usual, and generally no one noticed, although if you were unfortunate you might attract students. And if you looked hard enough in some of the outlying regions of the University, you could find an expert on anything. You could even find an expert on finding an expert. The Professor of Recondite Architecture and Origami Map Folding had been woken up. been introduced to the Archchancellor, who had never set eyes on him before, and had produced a map of the University which would probably be accurate for the next few days and looked rather like a chrysanthemum in the act of exploding. Finally, the wizards reached a door and Ridcully glared at the brass plate on it as if it had just been cheeky to him. “Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography”, he said. This looks like the one.

  We must have walked miles, said the Dean, leaning against the wall. I dont recognize any of this. Ridcully glanced around. The walls were stone but had at some time been painted in that very special institutional green that you get when an almost-finished cup of coffee is left standing for a couple of weeks. There was a board covered in balding and darker green felt on which had been optimistically thumbtacked the word Notices. But from the looks of it there had never been any notices and never would be, ever. There was a smell of ancient dinners.

  Ridcully shrugged, and knocked on the door. I dont remember him, said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. I think I do, said the Dean. Not a very promising boy. Had ears. Dont often see him around, though. Always has a suntan. Odd, that.

  Hes on the staff. If anyone knows anything about geography, hes our man. Ridcully knocked again. Perhaps hes out, said the Dean. Thats where you mostly get geography, outside. Ridcully pointed to a little wooden device by the door. There was one outside every wizards study. It consisted of a little sliding panel in a frame. Currently it was revealing the word IN and, presumably, was covering the word OUT, although you could never be sure with some wizards. [9] The Dean tried to slide the panel. It refused to budge. He must come out sometimes, said the Senior Wrangler. Besides, sensible men should be in bed at three a. m.

  Yes, indeed, said the Dean meaningfully. Ridcully thumped on the door. I demand that you open up! he shouted. 1 am the Master of this College! The door moved under the blow, but not very much. It was blocked by what turned out to be, after some strenuous shoving by all the wizards, an enormous pile of paperwork. The Dean picked up a yellowing piece of paper. This is the memo saying Ive been appointed as Dean! he said. That was years ago!

  Surely he must come out somet— said the Senior Wrangler. Oh dear . . . The same thought had occurred to the other wizards, too. Remember poor old Wally Sluwer? murmured the Chair of Indefinite Studies, looking around in some trepidation. Three years of tutorials post mortem.

  Well, the students did say he was a bit quiet, said Ridcully. He sniffed. Doesnt smell bad in here. Quite fresh, really. Pleasantly salty. Aha . . . There was bright light under a door at the other end of the crowded and dusty room, and the wizards could hear a gentle splashing. Bath night. Good man, said Ridcully. Well, we dont have to disturb him. He peered at the titles of the books that lined the room.

  Bound to be a lot about EcksEcksEcksEcks somewhere here, he added, pulling out a volume at random. Come along. One man, one book each.

  Can we at least send out for some breakfast? grumbled the Dean. Far too early for breakfast, said Ridcully. Well, some supper, then? Too late for supper. The Chair of Indefinite Studies took in the rest of the room. A lizard scuttled across the wall and disappeared. Bit of a mess in here, isnt there? he said, glaring at the place where the lizard had been. Everythings very dusty. Whats in all those boxes?

  Says “Rocks” on this side, said the Dean. Makes sense. If youre going to study the outdoors, do it in the warm.

  But what about all the fishing nets and coconuts? The Dean had to agree the point. The study was a mess, even by the extremely expansive standards of wizardry. Boxes of dusty rocks occupied the little space that wasnt covered with books and paper. They had been variously labelled, with inscriptions like Rocks from Lower Down, Other Rocks, Curious Rocks and Probably Not Rocks. Further boxes, to Ponders rising interest, were m
arked Remarkable Bones, Bones and Dull Bones. One of those people who pokes his nose where it doesnt belong, I fancy, said the Lecturer in Recent Runes, and sniffed. He sniffed again, and looked down at the book hed picked at random. This is a pressed squid collection, he said. Oh, is it any good? I used to collect starfish when I was a boy, said Ponder. The Lecturer in Recent Runes shut the book and frowned at him over the top of it. I daresay you did, young man. And old fossils too, I expect.

  I always thought that old fossils might have a lot to teach us, said Ponder. Perhaps I was wrong, he added darkly. Well, I for one have never believed all that business about dead animals turning into stone, said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. Its against all reason. Whats in it for them?

  So how do you explain fossils, then? said Ponder. Ah, you see, I dont, said the Lecturer in Recent Runes, with a triumphant smile. It saves so much trouble in the long run. How do skinless sausages hold together, Mister Stibbons?

  What? Eh? How should I know something like that?

  Really? You dont know that but you think youre entirely qualified to know how the whole universe was put together, do you? Anyway, you dont have to explain fossils. Theyre there. Why try to turn everything into a big mystery? If you go around asking questions the whole time youll never get anything done.

  Well, what are we put here for? said Ponder. There you go again, said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. Says here its girt by sea, said the Senior Wrangler. He looked up at their stares. This continent EcksEcksEcksEcks, he added, pointing at a page. Says here “Little is known about it save that it is girt by sea. ”

  Im glad to see someone has their mind on the task in hand, said Ridcully. You two get on with some studyin, please. Right, then, Senior Wrangler . . . girt by sea, is it?

  Apparently.

  Well . . . it would be, wouldnt it, said Ridcully. Anything else?

  I used to know a Gert, said the Bursar. The terror of the Library had sent his somewhat erratic sanity on a downward slide into the calm pink douds again. Not . . . very much, said the Senior Wrangler, flicking through the pages. Sir Roderick Purdeigh spent many years looking for the alleged continent and was very emphatic that it didnt exist.

  Quite a jolly gel. Gertrude Plusher, I think her name was. Face like a brick.

  Yes, but he once got lost in his own bedroom, said the Dean, thumbing through another book. They found him in the wardrobe.

  I wonder if its the same Gert? said the Bursar. Could be, Bursar, said Ridcully. He nodded at the other wizards. No ones to let him have any sugar or fruit. For a while there was no sound but the splash of water behind the door, the turning of pages and the Bursars randomized humming. According to this note in Wasports Lives of the Very Dull People, said the Senior Wrangler, squinting at the tiny script, he met an old fisherman who said in that country the bark fell off the trees in the winter and the leaves stayed on.

  Yes, but they always make up that sort of thing, said Ridcully. Otherwise its too boring. Its no good coming home and just saying you were shipwrecked for two years and ate winkles, is it? You have to put in a lot of daft stuff about men who go around on one big foot and The Land of Giant Plum Puddings and nursery rubbish like that.

 
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