The Last Continent Page 2

'Surely there's some sort of a cure?'

'The old place won't be the same without him.'

'Definitely one of a kind.' When they'd gone the Librarian reached up cautiously, pulled a piece of blanket over his head, cuddled his hot-water bottle and sneezed. Now there were two hot-water bottles, one of them a lot bigger than the other and with a teddy bear cover in red fur. Light travels slowly on the Disc and is slightly heavy, with a tendency to pile up against high mountain ranges. Research wizards have speculated that there is another, much speedier type of light which allows the slower light to be seen, but since this moves too fast to see they have been unable to find a use for it. This does mean that, despite the Disc being flat, everywhere does not experience the same time at, (or want of a better term, the same time. When it was so late at night in Ankh- Morpork that it was early in the morning, elsewhere it was . . . . . . but there were no hours here. There was dawn and dusk, morning and afternoon, and presumably there was midnight and midday, but mainly there was heat. And redness. Something as artificial and human as an hour wouldn't last five minutes here. It would be dried out and shrivelled up in seconds. Above all, there was silence. It was not the chilly, bleak silence of endless space, but the burning organic silence you get when, across a thousand miles of shimmering red horizons, everything is too tired to make a sound. But, as the ear of observation panned across the desert, it picked up something like a chant, a reedy little litany that beat against the all-embracing silence like a fly bumping against the windowpane of the universe. The rather breathless chanter was lost to view because he was standing in a hole dug in the red earth; occasionally some earth was thrown up on the heap behind him. A stained and battered pointy hat bobbed about in time with the tuneless tune. The word 'Wizzard' had, perhaps, once been embroidered on it in sequins. They had fallen off, but the word was still there in brighter red where the hat's original colour showed through. Several dozen small flies orbited it.

The words went something like this: 'Grubs! That's what we're going to eat! That's why they call it grub! And what're we doing to get the grub? Why, we're grubbing for it! Hooray!' Another shovelful of earth arced on to the heap, and the voice said, rather more quietly: 1 wonder if you can eat flies?' They say the heat and the flies here can drive a man insane. But you don't have to believe that, and nor does that bright mauve elephant that just cycled past. Strangely enough, the madman in the hole was the only person currently on the continent who might throw any kind of light on a small drama being enacted a thousand miles away and several metres below, where the opal miner known only to his mates as Strewth was about to make the most valuable yet dangerous discovery of his career. Strewth's pick knocked aside the rock and dust of millennia, and something gleamed in the candlelight. It was green, like frosty green fire. Carefully, his mind suddenly as frozen as the light under his fingers, he picked away at the loose rock. The opal picked up and reflected more and more light on to his face as the debris fell away. There seemed to be no end to the glow. Finally, he let his breath out in one go. 'Strewth!' If he'd found a little piece of green opal, say about the size of a bean, he'd have called his mates over and they'd have knocked off for a few beers. A piece the size of his fist would have had him pounding the floor. But with this . . . He was still standing there, brushing it gently with his fingers, when the other miners noticed the light and hurried over. At least . . . they started out hurrying. As they came closer, they slowed to a kind of reverential walk. No one said anything for a moment. The green light shone on their faces. Then one of the men whispered: 'Good on yer, Strewth.' There isn't enough money in all the world, mate.'

'Watch out, it might just be a glaze . . .'

'Still worth a mint. Go on, Strewth . . . get it out.' They watched like cats as the pick pried loose more and more rock, and found an edge. And another edge. Now Strewth's fingers began to shake.

'Careful, mate . . . there's a side of it . . .' The men took a step back as the last of the obscuring earth was knocked away. The thing was oblong, although the bottom edge was a confusion of twisted opal and dirt. Strewth reversed his pick and laid the wooden handle against the glowing crystal. 'Strewth, it's no good,' he said. 'I just gots to know . . .' He tapped the rock. It echoed. 'Can't be hollow, can it?' said one of the miners. 'Never heard of that.' Strewth picked up a crowbar. 'Right! Let's—' There was a faint plink. A large piece of opal broke away near the bottom. It turned out to be no thicker than a plate. It revealed a couple of toes, which moved very slowly inside their iridescent shell. 'Oh, strewth,' said a miner, as they backed further away. 'It's alive.' Ponder knew he should never have let Ridcully look at the invisible writings. Wasn't it a basic principle never to let your employer know what it is you actually do all day? But no matter what precautions you took, sooner or later the boss was bound to come in and poke around and say things like, 'Is this where you work, then?' and 'I thought I sent a memo out about people bringing in potted plants,' and 'What d'you call that thing with the keyboard?' And this had been particularly problematical for Ponder, because reading the invisible writings was a delicate and meticulous job, suited to the kind of temperament that follows Grand Prix Continental Drift and keeps bonsai mountains as a hobby or even drives a Volvo. It needed painstaking care. It needed a mind that could enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles in a dark room. It did not need Mustrum Ridcully. The hypothesis behind invisible writings was laughably complicated. All books are tenuously connected through L-space and, therefore, the content of any book ever written or yet to be written may, in the right circumstances, be deduced from a sufficiently close study of books already in existence. Future books exist in potentia, as it were, in the same way that a sufficiently detailed study of a handful of primal ooze will eventually hint at the future existence of prawn crackers. But the primitive techniques used hitherto, based on ancient spells like Weezencake's Unreliable Algorithm, had meant that it took years to put together even the ghost of a page of an unwritten book.

It was Ponder's particular genius that he had found a way around this by considering the phrase, 'How do you know it's not possible until you've tried?' And experiments with Hex, the University's thinking engine, had found that, indeed, many things are not impossible until they have been tried. Like a busy government which only passes expensive laws prohibiting some new and interesting thing when people have actually found a way of doing it, the universe relied a great deal on things not being tried at all. When something is tried, Ponder found, it often does turn out to be impossible very quickly, but takes a little while for this to really be the case[5] – in effect, for the overworked laws of causality to hurry to the scene and pretend it has been impossible all along. Using Hex to remake the attempt in minutely different ways at very high speed had resulted in a high success rate, and he was now assembling whole paragraphs in a matter of hours. 'It's like a conjurin' trick, then,' Ridcully had said. 'You're pullin' the tablecloth away before all the crockery has time to remember to fall over.' And Ponder had winced and said, 'Yes, exactly like that, Archchancellor. Well done.' And that had led to all the trouble with How to Dynamically Manage People for Dynamic Results in a Caring Empowering Way in Quite a Short Time Dynamically. Ponder didn't know when this book would be written, or even in which world it might be published, but it was obviously going to be popular because random trawls in the depths of L-space often turned up fragments. Perhaps it wasn't even just one book. And the fragments had been on Ponder's desk when Ridcully had been poking around. Unfortunately, like many people who are instinctively bad at something, the Archchancellor prided himself on how good at it he was. Ridcully was to management what King Herod was to the Bethlehem Playgroup Association. His mental approach to it could be visualized as a sort of business flowchart with, at the top, a circle entitled 'Me, who does the telling' and, connected below it by a line, a large circle entitled 'Everyone else'. Until now this had worked quite well, because, although Ridcully was an impossible manager, the University was impossible to manage and so everything worked seamlessly. And it would have continued to do so if he hadn't suddenly started to see the point in preparing career development packages and, worst of all, job descriptions. As the Lecturer in Recent Runes put it: 'He called me in and asked me what I did, exactly. Have you ever heard of such a thing? What sort of question is that? This is a university!'

'He asked me whether I had any personal worries,' said the Senior Wrangler. 'I don't see why I have to stand for that sort of thing.'

'And did you see that sign on his desk?' the Dean had said.

'You mean the one that says, “The Buck Starts Here”?'

'No, the other one. The one which says, “When You're Up to Your Ass in Alligators, Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life.”'

'And that means . . .?'

'I don't think it's supposed to mean anything. I think it's just supposed to be.'

'Be what?'

'Pro-active, I think. It's a word he's using a lot.'

'What does that mean?'

'Well . . . in favour of activity, I suppose.'

'Really? Dangerous. In my experience, inactivity sees you through.' Altogether, it was not a happy university at the moment, and mealtimes were the worst. Ponder tended to be isolated at one end of the High Table as the unwilling architect of this sudden tendency on the part of the Archchancellor to try to Weld Them Into A Lean Mean Team. The wizards had no intention of being lean, but were getting as mean as anything. On top of that, Ridcully's sudden interest in taking an interest meant that Ponder had to explain something about his own current project, and one aspect of Ridcully that had not changed was his horrible habit of, Ponder suspected, deliberately misunderstanding things. Ponder had long been struck by the fact that the Librarian, an ape – at least generally an ape, although this evening he seemed to have settled on being a small table set with a red-furred tea service – was, well, so human shaped. In fact, so many things were pretty much the same shape. Nearly everything you met was really a sort of complicated tube with two eyes and four arms or legs or wings. Oh, or they were fish. Or insects. All right, spiders as well. And a few odd things like starfish and whelks. But still there was a remarkably unimaginative range of designs. Where were the six-armed, six-eyed monkeys pinwheeling through the jungle canopy? Oh, yes, octopussies too, but that was the point, they were really only a kind of underwater spider . . . Ponder had poked around among the University's more or less abandoned Museum of Quite Unusual Things, and noticed something rather odd. Whoever had designed the skeletons of creatures had even less imagination than whoever had done the outsides. At least the outside- designer had tried a few novelties in the spots, wool and stripes department, but the bone- builder had generally just put a skull on a ribcage, shoved a pelvis in further along, stuck on some arms and legs and had the rest of the day off. Some ribcages were longer, some legs were shorter, some hands became wings, but they all seemed to be based on one design, one size stretched or shrunk to fit all.

Not to his very great surprise, Ponder seemed to be the only one around who found this at all interesting. He'd point out to people that fish were amazingly fish-shaped, and they'd look at him as if he'd gone mad. Palaeontology and archaeology and other skulduggery were not subjects that interested wizards. Things are buried for a reason, they considered. There's no point in wondering what it was. Don't go digging things up in case they won't let you bury them again. The most coherent theory was one he recalled from his nurse when he was small. Monkeys, she'd averred, were bad little boys who hadn't come in when called, and seals were bad little boys who'd lazed around on the beach instead of attending to their lessons. She hadn't said that bird were bad little boys who'd gone too close to the cliff edge, and in any case jellyfish would be more likely, but Ponder couldn't help thinking that, harmlessly insane though the woman had been, she might have had just the glimmerings of a point . . . He was spending most nights now watching Hex trawl the invisible writings for any hints. In theory, because of the nature of L-space, absolutely everything was available to him, but that only meant that it was more or less impossible to find whatever it was you were looking for, which is the purpose of computers. Ponder Stibbons was one of those unfortunate people cursed with the belief that if only he found out enough things about the universe it would all. somehow, make sense. The goal is the Theory of Everything, but Ponder would settle for the Theory of Something and, late at night, when Hex appeared to be sulking, he despaired of even a Theory of Anything. And it might have surprised Ponder to learn that the senior wizards had come to approve of Hex, despite all the comments on the lines of 'In my day we used to do our own thinking.' Wizardry was traditionally competitive, and, while UU was currently going through an extended period of peace and quiet, with none of the informal murders that had once made it such a terminally exciting place, a senior wizard always distrusted a young man who was going places since traditionally his route might be via your jugular. Therefore there's something comforting in knowing that some of the best brains in the University, who a generation ago would be coming up with some really exciting plans involving trick floorboards and exploding wallpaper, were spending all night in the High Energy Magic Building, trying to teach Hex to sing 'Lydia the Tattooed Lady', exulting at getting a machine to do after six hours' work something that any human off the street would do for tuppence, then sending out for banana-and-sushi pizza and falling asleep at the keyboard. Their seniors called it technomancy, and slept a little easier in their beds in the knowledge that Ponder and his students weren't sleeping in theirs. Ponder must have nodded off, because he was awakened just before 2 a.m. by a scream and realized he was face down in half of his supper. He pulled a piece of banana-flavoured mackerel off his cheek, left Hex quietly clicking through its routine and followed the noises. The commotion led him to the hall in front of the big doors leading to the Library. The Bursar was lying on the floor, being fanned with the Senior Wrangler's hat. 'As far as we can gather, Archchancellor,' said the Dean, 'the poor chap couldn't sleep and came down for a book—'

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