The Last Continent Page 12


'What's that, old chap?'

'Ook!'

'Yes, very pretty, but what's—'

'OOK!' The Librarian seemed to remember what kind of intellects he was dealing with. He held up a finger and looked at Ridcully enquiringly. 'Ook?'

'Still not quite with you—' Two fingers went up. 'Ook ook?'

'Not sure I fully—'

'Ook ook ook!' Ponder Stibbons looked at the three fingers now raised. 'I think he's counting, sir.' The Librarian handed him a banana.

'Ah, the old “How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?” game,' said the Dean. 'But usually we all have to have a bit more to drink first—' The Librarian waved his hand at the fish, at the meal, at the shells and at the background of trees. One finger stabbed at the sky. 'Ook!'

'It's all one to you?' said Ridcully. 'It's one big place? It's one to remember?' The Librarian opened his mouth again, and then sneezed. A very large red seashell lay on the sand. 'Oh, dear,' said Ponder Stibbons. 'That's interesting,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'He's turned into quite a good specimen of the giant conch. You can get a marvellous sound out of one of them if you blow in the pointy end . . .'

'Volunteers?' said the Dean, almost under his breath. 'Oh, dear,' said Ponder again. 'What's up with you?' said the Dean. 'There's only one,' said Ponder. 'That's what he was trying to tell us.'

'One what?' said Ridcully. 'Of everything, sir. There's only one of everything.' It was, he thought later, a good dramatic line. People ought to have looked at one another in growing and horrified realization and said things like, 'By George, you know, he's right!' But these were wizards, capable of thinking very big thoughts in very small chunks. 'Don't be daft, man,' said Ridcully. There's millions of the damn shells, for a start.'

'Yes, sir, but look, they're all different, sir. All the trees we found . . . there was only one of each sort, sir. Lots of banana trees, but they all produce different types of bananas. There was only one cigarette tree, wasn't there?'

'Lots of bees, though,' said Ridcully. 'But only one swarm,' said Ponder. 'Millions of beetles,' said the Dean. 'I don't think I've seen two alike, sir.'

'Well, that's interesting,' said Ridcully, 'but I don't see—'

'One of anything doesn't work, sir,' said Ponder. 'It can't breed.'

'Yes, but they're only trees, Stibbons.'

'Trees need males and females too, sir.'

'They do?'

'Yes, sir. Sometimes they're different bits of the same tree, sir.'

'What? You sure?'

'Yes, sir. My uncle grew nuts, sir.'

'Keep it down, boy, keep it down! Mrs Whitlow might hear you!' Ponder was taken aback. 'What, sir? But . . . well . . . she is Mrs Whitlow, sir . . .'

'What's that got to do with the price of feet?'

'I mean . . . presumably there was a Mr Whitlow, sir?' Ridcully's face went wooden for a moment and his lips moved as he tried out various responses. Finally he settled, weakly, for: 'That's as maybe, but it all sounds pretty mucky to me.'

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'I'm afraid that's nature for you, sir.'

'I used to like walking through the woods on a nice spring morning, Stibbons. You mean to say the trees were at it like knives the whole time?' Ponder's horticultural knowledge found itself a little exhausted at this point. He tried to remember what he could about his uncle, who'd spent most of his life up a ladder. 'I, er, think camel-hair brushes are sometimes involved—' he began, but Ridcully's expression told him that this wasn't a welcome fact, so he went on, 'Anyway, sir, ones don't work. And there's another thing, sir. Who smokes the ciga rettes? I mean, if the bush just hopes that butts are going to be dropped around the place, who does it think is going to smoke them?'

'What?' Ponder sighed. The point about fruit, sir, is that it's a kind of lure. A bird'll eat the fruit and then, er, drop the seeds somewhere. It's the way the plant spreads its seeds around. But we've only seen birds and a few lizards on this island, so how—'

'Ah, I see what you mean,' said Ridcully. 'You're thinking: what kind of bird stops flyin' around for a quick smoke?'

'A puffin,' said the Bursar. 'Glad to see you're still with us, Bursar,' said Ridcully, without looking round. 'Birds don't smoke, sir. You've got to ask yourself what's in it for the bush, you see? If there were people here, well, I suppose you might get a sort of nicotine tree eventually, because they'd smoke the cigarettes – I mean,' he corrected himself, because he prided himself on his logical thought, 'these things that look like cigarettes, and stub them out around the place, thus spreading the seeds which are in the filter. Some seeds need heat to germinate, sir. But if there aren't any people, the bush doesn't make any sense.'

'We're people,' said the Dean. 'And I like a smoke after supper. Everyone knows that.'

'Yes, but with respect, sir, we've only been here a couple of hours and I doubt whether the news has spread all the way to small islands,' said Ponder patiently, and with, as it turned out, one hundred per cent inaccuracy. That's probably not long enough for one to evolve.'

'Are you tellin' me', said Ridcully, like a man with something on his mind, 'that you think when you eat an apple you're helping it to . . .' He stopped. 'It was bad enough about the trees.' He sniffed. 'I shall stick to eating fish. At least they make their own arrangements. At a decent distance, I understand. And you know what I think about evolution, Mister Stibbons. If it happens, and frankly I've always considered it a bit of a fairy story, it has to happen fast. Look at lemmings, for one thing.'

'Lemmings, sir?'

'Right. The little blighters keep chargin' over cliffs, right? And how many have ever changed into birds on the way down, eh? Eh?'

'Well, none, of cou—'

'There's my point,' said Ridcully triumphantly. 'And it's no good one of them on the way down thinking, “Hey, maybe I should waggle my claws a bit,” is it? No, what it ought to do is decide really positively about growing some real wings.'

'What, in a couple of seconds? While they're plunging towards the rocks?'

'Best time.'

'But lemmings don't just turn into birds, sir!'

'Lucky for them if they could, though, eh?' There was a roar, far off in the little jungle. It sounded rather like a foghorn. 'Are you sure there aren't any dangerous creatures on this island?' said the Dean. 'I think I saw some prawns,' said the Senior Wrangler nervously.

'No, the Archchancellor was right, it's far too small,' said Ponder, trying to dismiss the thought of flying lemmings. 'It couldn't possibly support anything that could hurt us, sir. After all, what would it eat?' Now they could all hear something crashing through the trees. 'Us?' said the Dean hesitantly. A creature blundered out on to the sunset sands. It was large and seemed to be mainly head – one huge, reptilian head that looked almost as big as the body below it. It walked on two long hind legs. There was a tail, but given the amount of teeth now showing at the other end the wizards weren't inclined to take in too much additional detail. The creature sniffed the air and roared again. 'Ah,' said Ridcully. 'The solution to the mystery of the disappearing geographer, I suspect. Well done, Senior Wrangler.'

'I think I'll just—' the Dean began. 'Stay still, sir!' hissed Ponder. 'A lot of reptiles can't see you if you don't move!'

'I can assure you, at the speed I intend nothing is going to see me . . .' The monster turned its head this way and that, and began to lumber forward. 'Can't see things that don't move?' said the Archchancellor. 'You mean we just have to wait for it to walk into a tree?'

'Mrs Whitlow's still sitting there!' said the Senior Wrangler. She was in fact spreading some runny cheese on a biscuit in a ladylike fashion. 'I don't think she's seen it!' Ridcully rolled up his sleeve. 'I think a round of fireballs, gentlemen,' he said. 'Hold on,' said Ponder. This may be an endangered species.'

'So is Mrs Whitlow.'

'But do we have the right to wipe out what—'

'Absolutely,' said Ridcully. 'If its creator had meant it to survive he would have given it a fireproof skin. That's your evolution for you, Stibbons.'

'But perhaps we ought to study it . . .?' The thing was beginning to get up speed now. It was amazing how fast it could move, considering how big it was.

'Er . . .' said Ponder nervously. Ridcully raised his arm. The creature stopped, jerked into the air, and then went flat, like a rubber ball that had been stepped on, and indeed when it sprang back into shape it was with a noise akin to the sound made when a bad conjuror is having trouble twisting the back legs on to the balloon animal. Insofar as it had an expression at all, it looked more astonished than hurt. Little flashes of lightning crackled around it. It went flat again, rolled up into a cylinder, twisted into a range of interesting but probably painful shapes, shrank to a ball the size of a grapefruit and then, with a final and rather sad little noise that might well have been spelled prarp, dropped back on to the sand. 'Now that was pretty good,' said Ridcully. 'Which of you fellows did that?' The wizards looked at one another. 'Not us,' said the Dean. 'It was going to be fireballs all the way.' Ridcully nudged Ponder. 'Go on, then,' he said. 'Study it.'

'Er . . .' Ponder looked at the bewildered creature on the sand. 'Er . . . the subject appears to have turned into a large chicken.'

'Good, well done,' said Ridcully, as if to wrap things up. 'Shame to waste this fireball, then.' He hurled it. It was a road. At least, it was a long flat piece of desert with wheel ruts in it. Rincewind stared at it. A road. Roads went somewhere. Sooner or later they went everywhere. And when you got there, you generally found walls, buildings, harbours . . . boats. And incidentally a shortage of talking kangaroos. That was practically one of the hallmarks of civilization. It wasn't that he was against anyone saving the world, or whatever subset of it apparently wanted saving. He just felt that it didn't need saving by him. Which way to go? He picked a direction at random and jogged along for a while, as the sun came up. After a while there was a cloud of dust in the dawn, coming closer. Rincewind stood hopefully by the track. What eventually appeared at the inverted apex of the cloud was a cart, pulled by a string of horses. The horses were black. So was the cart. And it didn't seem to be slowing down.

Rincewind waved his hat in the air, just as the horses came past. After a while the dust settled. He got back on to his feet and walked unsteadily through the bushes until he found the cart where it had come to rest. The horses watched him warily. It wasn't a huge cart to be pulled by eight horses, but both they and the cart were covered with so much wood, leather and metal they probably didn't have much energy to spare. Spikes and studs covered every surface. The reins led not to the usual seat, but into holes in the front of the cart itself. This was roofed over with more wood and ironmongery – bits of old stove, hammered-out body armour, saucepan lids, and tin cans that had been stamped flat and nailed on. Above the slot where the reins went in was something like a piece of bent stovepipe, poking through the cart's roof. It had a watchful look. 'Er . . . hello?' said Rincewind. 'Sorry if I scared your horses . . .' In the absence of any reply he climbed up an armoured wheel and looked at the top of the cart. There was a round lid that had been pushed open. Rincewind didn't even consider looking inside. That'd mean his head would be outlined against the sky, a sure way of getting your body outlined against the dirt. A twig cracked behind him. He sighed, and got down slowly, taking great care not to turn around. 'I surrender totally,' he said, raising his hands. That's right,' said a level voice. 'This is a crossbow, mate. Let's have a look at your ugly mug.' Rincewind turned. There was no one behind him. Then he looked down. The crossbow was almost vertical. If it were fired, the bolt would go right up his nose. 'A dwarf?' he said. 'You've got something against dwarfs?'

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