The Last Continent Page 35


'I certainly would, sir.'

'Unimaginably vast amounts of magic doing their stuff.'

'Astonishing, sir.'

'So I expect no one will miss a little bit, eh?'

'No! That's not how it works, sir! If we use it, it's like . . . like treading on ants, sir! This isn't like . . . finding an old staff in a cupboard and using up the magic that's left. This is the real primal energy! Anything we do might well have an effect.' The Dean tapped him on the shoulder. 'Then here we are, young Stibbons, stuck on this forsaken shore. What do you suggest? We're thousands of years from home. Perhaps we should just sit and wait? That Rincewind fellow's bound to be along in a few millennia?'

'Er, Dean . . .' said the Senior Wrangler. 'Yes?'

'Are you standing behind Stibbons there, or are you sitting on this rock over here?' The Dean looked at himself, sitting on the rock. 'Oh, blast,' he muttered. Temporal discontinuity again.'

'Again?' said Ponder. 'We had a patch of it in Room 5b once,' said the Senior Wrangler. 'Ridiculous. You had to cough before you went in, in case you were already there. Anyway, you shouldn't be surprised, young man. Enough magic distorts all physical la—' The Senior Wrangler vanished, leaving only a pile of clothes. 'Took a while to take hold,' said Ridcully. 'I remember when—' His voice suddenly rose in pitch. Ponder spun around and saw a small heap of clothing with a pointed hat on top of it. He raised the hat gingerly. A pink face under a mop of curls looked up at him. 'Bugger!' squeaked Ridcully. 'How old am I, mister?'

'Er . . . you look about six, sir,' said Ponder. His back twinged. The small worried face crinkled up. 'I want my mum!' The little nose sniffed. 'Was that me who just said that?'

'Er, yes . . .'

'You can keep on top of it if you concentrate,' the Archchancellor squeaked. 'It resets the tempor— I wanna sweetie! – it resets the temporal gl— I wanna sweetie, oh, you wait till I get me home, I'll give me such a smack – it resets the body's clo— where's Mr Pootle? – it resets the body's clock – wanna wanna Mr Pootle! – don't worry, I think I've got the hang of it—' The wail behind Ponder made him turn around. There were more piles of clothing where the wizards had been. He pulled aside the Dean's hat just as a faint bloop suggested that Mustrum Ridcully had managed to regain full possession of his years again. 'That the Dean, Stibbons?'

'Could be, sir. Er . . . some of them have gone, sir!' Ridcully looked unflustered. 'Temporal gland acting up in the high field,' he said. 'Probably decided that since it's thousands of years ago they're not here. Don't worry, they'll come back when it works it out . . .' Ponder suddenly felt breathless. 'And . . . hwee . . . think this one's the Lecturer in Recent Runes . . . hwee . . . of course . . . hwee . . . all babies look the . . . hwee . . . same.' There was another wail from under the Senior Wrangler's hat. 'Bit of a . . . hwee . . . kindergarten here, sir,' Ponder wheezed. His back creaked when he tried to stand upright. 'Oh, they'll probably come back if they don't get fed,' said Ridcully. 'It's you that'll be the problem, lad. I mean, sir.' Ponder held his hands up in front of him. He could see the veins through the pale skin. He could nearly see the bones. Around him the piles of clothing rose again as the wizards clambered back to their proper age. 'How . . . old . . . hwee . . . I . . . ha . . . look?' he panted. 'Like someone who shouldn't . . . hwee . . . start reading a long book?'

'A long sentence,' said Ridcully cheerfully, holding him up. 'How old do you feel? In yourself?'

'I . . . hwee . . . ought to feel . . . hwee . . . about twenty-four, sir,' Ponder groaned. 'I actually . . . hwee . . . feel like a twenty-four-year-old who has been hit by eighty years travelling at . . . hwee . . . high speed.'

'Hold on to that thought. Your temporal gland knows how old you are.' Ponder tried to concentrate, but it was hard. Pan of him wanted to go to sleep. Part of him wanted to say, 'Hah, you call this a temporal disturbance? You should've seen the temporal

disturbances we will have been used to be going to get in my day.' A pressing part of him was threatening that if he didn't find a toilet it would make its own arrangements. 'You've kept your hair,' said the Senior Wrangler, encouragingly. Ponder heard himself say, 'Remember old “Cruddy” Trusset? Now there was a wizard who had . . . good . . . hair . . .' He tried to get a grip. 'He's still alive, isn't he?' he wheezed. 'He's the same age as me. Oh, no . . . now I'm remembering only yesterday as if it was . . . hwee . . . seventy years ago!'

'You can get over it,' said Ridcully. 'You've got to make it clear you're not accepting it, you see. The important thing is not to panic.'

'I am panicking,' squeaked Ponder. 'I'm just doing it very slowly! Why've I got this horrible feeling that I'm . . . hwee . . . falling forward all the . . . hwee . . . time?'

'Oh, that's just apprehensions of mortality,' said Ridcully. 'Everyone gets that.'

'And . . . hwee . . . now I think my memory's going . . .'

'What makes you think that?'

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'Think what? Speak up, you . . . hwee . . . man . . .' Something exploded somewhere behind Ponder's eyeballs and lifted him off the ground. For a moment he felt he had jumped into icy water. The blood flowed back to his hands. 'Well done, lad,' said Ridcully. 'Your hair's going brown again, too.'

'Ow . . .' Ponder slumped to his knees. 'It was like wearing a lead suit! I never want to go through that again!'

'Suicide's your best bet, then,' said Ridcully. 'Is this going to happen again?'

'Probably. At least once, anyway.' Ponder got to his feet with a steely look in his eyes. 'Then let's find whoever's building this place and ask them to send us home,' he growled. 'They might not want to listen,' said Ridcully. 'Deities can be touchy.' Ponder shook his sleeves to leave his hands free. For a wizard, this was equivalent to checking the functioning of a pump-action shotgun.

'Then we'll insist,' he said. 'Really, Stibbons? What about protection of the magical ecology?' Ponder turned on him a look that would have opened a strongroom. Ridcully was in his seventies and spry even for wizards, who tended to live well into their second century if they survived their first fifty years. Ponder wasn't sure how old he'd been, but he'd definitely thought he could hear a blade being sharpened. It was one thing to know you were on a journey, and quite, quite another to see your destination on the horizon. 'It can get stuffed,' he said.[22] 'Well thought out, Mister Stibbons! I can see we'll make a wizard of you yet. Ah, the Dean's . . . oh . . .' The Dean's clothes billowed up but did not, as it were, inflate to their old size. The hat in particular was big enough to rock on the Dean's ears, which were redder and stuck out more than Ponder remembered. Ridcully raised the hat. 'Push off, granddad,' said the Dean. 'Ah,' said the Archchancellor. Thirteen years old, I'd say. Which explains a lot. Well, Dean, help us with the others, will you?'

'Why should I?' The adolescent Dean cracked his knuckles. 'Hah! I'm young again and soon you'll be dead! I've got my whole life ahead of me!'

'Firstly, you'll spend it here, and secondly, Dean, you think it's going to be jolly good fun being the Dean in a thirteen-year-old body, don't you, but within a minute or two you'll start forgetting it all, you see? The old temporal gland can't allow you to remember being fourteen when you're not even thirteen yet, you follow me? You'd know this stuff, Dean, if you weren't forgetting. You'll have to go through it all over again. Dean . . . ah . . .' The brain has far less control over the body than the body does over the brain. And adolescence is not a good time. Nor is old age, for that matter, but at least the spots have cleared up, some of the more troublesome glands have settled down and you're allowed to take a nap in the afternoons and twinkle at young women. In any case, the Dean's body hadn't experienced too much old age yet, whereas every junior spot, ache and twinge was firmly embossed on the morphic memory. Once, it decided, was enough. The Dean expanded. Ponder noticed that his head in particular swelled up to fit his ears. The Dean rubbed his spot-free face. 'Five minutes wouldn't have been bad,' he complained. 'What was that all about?'

'Temporal uncertainty,' said Ridcully. 'You've seen it before, didn't you realize? What were you thinking of?'

'Sex.'

'Oh, yes, of course . . . silly of me, really.' Ridcully looked along the deserted beach. 'Mister Stibbons thinks we can—' he began. 'Ye gods! There are people here!' A young woman was walking towards them. Swaying, anyway. 'My word,' said the Dean. 'I suppose this isn't Slakki, by any chance?'

'I thought they wore grass skirts . . .' said Ridcully. 'What's she wearing, Stibbons?'

'A sarong.'

'Looks right enough to me, haha,' said the Dean. 'Certainly makes a man wish he was fifty years younger,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'Five minutes younger would do for me,' said the Dean. 'Incidentally, did any of you notice that rather clever inadvertent joke just then? Stibbons said it was “a sarong” and I—'

'What's that she's carrying?' said Ridcully. '—no, listen, you see, I misheard him, in fact, and I—'

'Looks like . . . coconuts . . .' said Ponder, shading his eyes. 'This is a bit more like it,' said the Senior Wrangler. '—because actually I thought he said, “It's wrong,” you see—'

'Certainly a coconut,' said Ridcully. 'I'm not complaining, of course, but aren't these sultry maids generally black-haired? Red doesn't seem very typical.'

'—so I said—'

'I suppose you'd get coconuts here?' said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. 'They float, don't they?'

'—and, listen, when Stibbons said “sarong”, I thought he—'

'Something familiar about her,' Ridcully mused. 'Did you see that nut in the Museum of Quite Unusual Things?' said the Senior Wrangler. 'Called the coco-de-mer and . . .' he permitted himself '. . . ha, very curious shape, you know, you'll never guess who it used to put me in mind of . . .'

'It can't be Mrs Whitlow, can it?' said Ponder. 'As a matter of fact, I must admit that it—'

'Well, I thought it was mildly amusing, anyway,' said the Dean.

'It is Mrs Whitlow,' said Ridcully. 'More of a nut, really, but—' It dawned on the Senior Wrangler that the sky was a different colour on his personal planet. He turned around, looked, said, 'Mwaaa . . .' and fell gently to the sand. 'Ai don't quate know what's happened to Mister Librarian,' said Mrs Whitlow, in a voice that made the Senior Wrangler twitch even in his swoon. The coconut opened its eyes. It looked as if it had just seen something truly horrific, but this is a normal expression for baby orang-utans and in any case it was looking at the Dean. 'Eek!' it said. Ridcully coughed. 'Well, at least he's the right shape,' he said. 'And, er, you, Mrs Whitlow? How do you feel?'

'Mwaa . . .' said the Senior Wrangler. 'Very well indeed, thank you,' said Mrs Whitlow. This country agrees with me. I don't know whether it was the swim, but Ai haven't felt quate so buoyant in years. But Ai looked around and there was this dear little ape just sitting there.'

'Ponder, would you mind just throwing the Senior Wrangler in the sea for a moment?' said Ridcully. 'Nowhere too deep. Don't worry if it steams.' He took Mrs Whitlow's spare hand. 'I don't want to worry you, dear Mrs Whitlow,' he said, 'but I think something is shortly going to come as a big shock to you. First of all, and please don't misunderstand me, it might be a good idea to loosen your clothing.' He swallowed. 'Slightly.' The Bursar had experienced some changes of age as he wandered through the wet but barren land, but to a man capable of being a vase of flowers for an entire afternoon this was barely a mild distraction. What had caught his eye was a fire. It was burning bits of driftwood, and the flames were edged with blue from the salt. Close to it was a sack made of some sort of animal skins. The damp earth beside the Bursar stirred and a tree erupted, growing so fast that the rain steamed off the unfolding leaves. This did not surprise him. Few things did. Besides, he'd never seen a tree growing before, so he did not know how fast it was supposed to go. Then several more trees exploded around him. One grew so fast that it went all the way from sapling to half-rotten trunk in a few seconds.

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