The Last Continent Page 25

'Could you get treatment for premature incineration?'

'Dean! This is not the time!'

'Sorry, Archchancellor.'

'If only they hadn't turned up their noses at my inflammable cows,' said the god, sparks fizzing off his beard. 'All right, I would agree that on hot days, in certain rare circumstances, they would spontaneously combust and burn down the village, but is that any excuse for ingratitude?' Mrs Whitlow had been giving the god a long, cool stare. 'What exactly is it you wish to know?' she said. 'Huh?' said Ridcully.

'Well, Ai mean no offence, but Ai for one would like to get out of here without mai hair on fire,' said the housekeeper. The god looked up. This male and female concept seems really rather promising,' he said, sniffing. 'But no one seems to want to go into detail . . .'

'Oh, that,' said Mrs Whitlow. She glanced at the wizards, and then gently pulled the god to his feet. 'If you will excuse me for one moment, gentlemen . . .' The wizards watched them in even more shock than had attended the lightning display, and then the Chair of Indefinite Studies pulled his hat over his eyes. 'I daren't look,' he said, and added, 'What are they doing?'

'Er . . . just talking . . .' said Ponder. 'Talking?'

'And she's . . . sort of . . . waving her hands about.'

'Mwaa!' said the Senior Wrangler. 'Quick, someone, give him some air,' said Ridcully. 'Now she's laughing, isn't she?' Both the housekeeper and the god looked around at the wizards. Mrs Whitlow nodded her head as if to reassure him that what she'd just told him was true, and they both laughed. 'That looked more like a snigger,' said the Dean severely. 'I'm not sure I actually approve of this,' said Ridcully, haughtily. 'Gods and mortal women, you know. You hear stories.'

'Gods turning themselves into bulls,' said the Dean. 'Swans, too,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'Showers of gold,' said the Dean. 'Yes,' said the Chair. He paused for a second. 'You know, I've often wondered about that one—'

'What's she describing now?'

'I think I'd rather not know, quite frankly.'

'Oh, look, someone please do something for the Senior Wrangler, will you?' said Ridcully. 'Loosen his clothing or something!' They heard the god shout, 'It what?' Mrs Whitlow glanced around at the wizards and appeared to lower her voice.

'Did anyone ever meet Mr Whitlow?' said the Archchancellor. 'Well . . . no,' said the Dean. 'Not that I remember. I suppose we've all assumed that he's dead.'

'Anyone know what he died of?' Ridcully went on. 'Ah, quieten down . . . they're coming back . . .' The god nodded cheerfully at them as he approached. 'Well, that's all sorted out,' he said, rubbing his hands together. 'I can't wait to see how it works in practice. You know, if I'd sat here for a hundred years I'd never have . . . well, really, no one could serious believe . . . I mean . . .' He started to chuckle at their frozen faces. 'That bit where he . . . and then she . . . Really, I'm amazed that anyone stops laughing long enough to . . . Still, I can see how it could work, and it certainly opens the door to some very interesting possibilities indeed . . .' Mrs Whitlow was looking intently at the ceiling. There was perhaps just a hint in her stance and the way her rather expressive bosom moved that she was trying not to laugh. It was disconcerting. Mrs Whitlow never usually laughed at anything. 'Ah? Oh?' said Ridcully, edging towards the door. 'Really? Well done, then. So, I expect you don't need us any more, eh? Only we've got a boat to catch . . .'

'Yes, certainly, don't let me hold you up,' said the god, waving a hand vaguely. 'You know, the more I think about it, the more I can see that “sex” will solve practically all my problems.'

'Not everyone can say that,' said Ridcully gravely. 'Are you, er . . . joining us, Mrs, er, Whitlow?'

'Certainly, Archchancellor.'

'Er . . . jolly good. Well done. Ahem. And you, of course, Mister Stibbons . . .' The god had wandered over to a workbench and was rummaging in boxes. The air glittered. Ponder looked up at the whale. It was clearly alive but . . . not at the moment. His gaze swept across the elephant-under-construction and past mysteriously organic-looking gantries, where shimmering blue light surrounded shapes as yet unrecognized, although one did appear to contain half a cow. He carefully removed an exploring beetle from his ear. The point was, if he left now he'd always wonder . . . 'I think I'd like to stay,' he said. 'Good . . . er . . .' said the god, without looking around. 'Man,' said Ponder. 'Good man,' said the god.

'Are you sure?' said Ridcully. 'I don't think I've ever had a holiday,' said Ponder. 'I'd like to apply for time off to do research, sir.'

'But we're lost in the past, man!'

'Basic research, then,' said Ponder firmly. 'There's just so much to learn here, sir!'


'You've only got to look around, sir!'

'Well, I suppose I can't stop you if your mind's made up,' said the Archchancellor. 'We'll have to dock your pay, of course.'

'I don't think I've ever been paid, sir,' said Ponder. The Dean nudged Ridcully and whispered in his car. 'And we need to know how the boat works,' Ridcully went on. 'What? Oh, it shouldn't be a problem,' said the god, looking up from his bench. 'It'll find somewhere with a different biogeographical signature, you see. It's all automatic. No sense in coming back to where you started from!' He waved a beetle leg in the air. There's a new continent going up turn wise of here. The boat'll probably head straight for a landmass that size.'

'New?' said Ridcully. 'Oh, yes. I've never been interested in that sort of thing myself, but you can hear the construction noises all night. It's certainly causing a mess.'

'Stibbons, are you sure you want to stay?' the Dean demanded. 'Er, yes . . .'

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'I''m sure Mister Stibbons will uphold the fine traditions of the University!' said Ridcully heartily. Ponder, who knew all about the traditions of the University, nodded very slightly. His heart was pounding. He hadn't even felt like this when he'd first worked out how to program Hex. At last he'd found his proper place in the world. The future beckoned. Dawn was breaking when the wizards ambled back down the mountain. 'Not a bad god, I thought,' said the Senior Wrangler. 'As gods go.'

'That was good coffee he made us,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'And didn't he grow the bush fast, once we explained what coffee was,' said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. They strolled on. Mrs Whitlow was walking some way ahead, humming to herself. The wizards took care to remain at a respectful distance. They were aware that in some kind of obscure way she'd won, although they hadn't a clue what the game was. 'Funny of young Ponder to want to stay,' said the Senior Wrangler, desperately trying to think of anything except a vision in pink. 'The god seemed happy about it,' said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. 'He did say that designing sex was going to involve redesigning practically everything else.'

'I used to make snakes out of clay when I was a little boy,' said the Bursar happily. 'Well done, Bursar.'

'Doing the feet was the hard part.'

'I can't help thinking, though, that we may have . . . tinkered with the past, Archchancellor,' said the Senior Wrangler. 'I don't see how,' said Ridcully. 'After all, the past happened before we got here.'

'Yes, but now we're here, we've changed it.'

'Then we changed it before.' And that, they felt, pretty well summed it up. It is very easy to get ridiculously confused about the tenses of time travel, but most things can be resolved by a sufficiently large ego. 'It's jolly impressive to think that a University man will be helping to create a whole new approach to designing lifeforms,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'Indeed, yes,' said the Dean. 'Who says education is a bad thing, eh?'

'I can't imagine,' said Ridcully. 'Who?'

'Well, if they did, we could point to Ponder Stibbons and say, look at him, worked hard at his studies, paid attention to his tutors, and now he's sitting on the right hand of a god.'

'Won't that make it rather difficult for—' the Lecturer in Recent Runes began, but the Dean got there first. 'That means on the right-hand side of the god, Runes,' he said. 'Which, I suspect, makes him an angel. Technically.'

'Surely not. He's scared of heights. Anyway, he's made of flesh and blood, and I'm sure angels have to be made of . . . light or something. He could be a saint, though, I suppose.'

'Can he do miracles, then?'

'I'm not sure. When we left they were talking about redesigning male baboons' behinds to make them more attractive.' The wizards thought about this for a while. 'That'd be a miracle in my book, certainly,' said Ridcully. 'Can't say that's how I'd choose to spend an afternoon, though,' said the Senior Wrangler, in a thoughtful voice. 'According to the god it's all to do with making creatures want to have . . . to engage in . . . to get to grips with making a new generation, when they could otherwise be spending their time in more . . . profitable activity. Apparently, a lot of animals will need a complete rebuild.'

'From the bottom up. Ahaha.'

'Thank you for your contribution, Dean.'

'So exactly how does it work, then?' said the Senior Wrangler. 'A female baboon sees a male baboon and says, “My word, that's a very colourful bottom and no mistake, let us engage in . . . nuptial activity”?'

'I must say I've often wondered about that sort of thing myself,' said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. Take frogs. Now, if I was a lady frog looking for a husband, I'd want to know about, well, size of legs, competence at catching flies—'

'Length of tongue,' said Ridcully. 'Dean, will you please take something for that cough?'

'Quite so,' said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. 'Has he got a good pond, and so on. I can't say I'd base my choice on his ability to inflate his throat to the same size as his stomach and go rabbit, rabbit.'

'I believe it's ribbit, ribbit, Runes.'

'Are you sure?'

'I believe so, yes.'

'Which ones go rabbit, rabbit, then?'

'Rabbits, I believe.'

'Oh. Yes. Constantly, as I recall.'

'I've always thought sex was really a rather tasteless way of ensuring the continuity of the species,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies, as they reached the beach. 'I'm sure there could be something better. It's all very . . . old-fashioned, to my mind. And far too energetic.'

'Well, I'm generally in agreement, but what would you suggest instead?' said Ridcully. 'Bridge,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies firmly. 'Really? Bridge?'

'You mean the game with cards?' said the Dean. 'I don't see why not. It can be extremely exciting, very sociable, and requires no special equipment.'

'But you do need four people,' Ridcully pointed out. 'Ah, yes. I had not considered that. Yes, I can see that there could be problems. All right, then. How about . . . croquet? You can do that with two. Indeed, I've often enjoyed a quiet knockabout all by myself.' Ridcully let a little more space come between him and the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'I fail to see how it could be utilized for the purpose of procreation,' he said carefully. 'Recreation, yes, I'll grant you that. But not procreation. I mean, how would it work?'

'He's the god,' sniffed the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'He's supposed to sort out the details, isn't he?'

'But you think women would really decide to spend their life with a man just because he can swing a big mallet?' said the Dean. 'I suppose, when you come to think about it, that's no more ridic—' Ridcully began, and then stopped. 'I think we should leave this subject,' he said. 'I played croquet with him only last week,' hissed the Dean to Ridcully, as the Chair wandered off. 'I shan't be happy now until I've had a good bath!'

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