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Page 28

Its head passed in front of her and she looked directly into an eye big enough to float all the fleets in the world. She had heard it said that if you could look far enough into the direction that Great A'Tuin was staring, you would see the end of the universe. Maybe it was just the set of its beak, but Great A'Tuin looked vaguely hopeful, even optimistic. Perhaps the end of everything wasn't as bad as all that.

Dreamlike, she reached out and tried to Borrow the biggest mind in the universe.

She stopped herself just in time, like a child with a toy toboggan who expected a little gentle slope and suddenly looks out of the magnificent mountains, snow-covered, stretching into the icefields of infinity. No one would ever Borrow that mind, it would be like trying to drink all the sea. The thoughts that moved through it were as big and as slow as glaciers.

Beyond the Disc were the stars, and there was something wrong with them. They were swirling like snowflakes. Every now and again they would settle down and look as immobile as they always did, and then they'd suddenly take it into their heads to dance.

Real stars shouldn't do that, Esk decided. Which meant she wasn't looking at real stars. Which meant she wasn't exactly in a real place. But a chittering close at hand reminded her that she could almost certainly really die if she once lost track of those noises. She turned and pursued the sounds through the stellar snowstorm.

And the stars jumped, and settled, jumped, and settled ....

As she swooped upward Esk tried to concentrate on everyday things, because if she let her mind dwell on precisely what it was she was following then she knew she would turn back, and she wasn't sure she knew the way. She tried to remember the eighteen herbs that cured ear-ache, which kept her occupied for a while because she could never recall the last four.

A star swooped past, and then was violently jerked away; it was about twenty feet across.

When she ran out of herbs she started on the diseases of goats, which took quite a long time because goats can catch a lot of things that cows can catch plus a lot of things plus that sheep plus catch plus a complete range of horrible ailments of their very own. When she had finished listing wooden udder, ear wilt and the octarine garget she tried to recall the complex code of dots and lines that they used to cut in the trees around Bad Ass, so that lost villagers could find their way home on snowy nights.

She was only as far as dot dot dot dash dot dash (Hub-byTurnwise, one mile from the village) when the universe around her vanished with a faint pop. She fell forward, hit something hard and gritty and rolled to a halt.

The grittiness was sand. Fine, dry, cold sand. You could tell that even if you dug down several feet it would be just as cold and just as dry.

Esk lay with her face in it for a moment, summoning the courage to look up. She could just see, a few feet away from her, the hem of someone's dress: Something's dress, she corrected herself. Unless it was a wing. It could be a wing, a particularly tatty and leathery one.

Her eyes followed it up until she found a face, higher than a house, outlined against the starry sky. Its owner was obviously trying to look nightmarish, but had tried too hard. The basic appearance was that of a chicken that had been dead for about two months, but the unpleasant effect was rather spoiled by warthog tusks, moth antennae, wolf ears and a unicorn spike. The whole thing had a selfassembled look, as if the owner had heard about anatomy but couldn't quite get to grips with the idea.

It was staring, but not at her. Something behind her occupied all its interest. Esk turned her head very slowly.

Simon was sitting cross-legged in the centre of a circle of Things. There were hundreds of them, as still and silent as statues, watching him with reptilian patience.

There was something small and angular held in his cupped hands. It gave off a fuzzy blue light that made his face look strange.

Other shapes lay on the ground beside him, each in its little soft glow. They were the regular sort of shapes that Granny dismissed airily as jommetry-cubes, many-sided diamonds, cones, even a globe. Each one was transparent and inside was ....

Esk edged closer. No one was taking any notice of her.

Inside a crystal sphere that had been tossed aside on to the sand floated a blue-green ball, crisscrossed with tiny white cloud patterns and what could almost have been continents if anyone was silly enough to try to live on a ball. It might have been a sort of model, except something about its glow told Esk that it was quite real and probably very big and not - in every sense - totally inside the sphere.

She put it down very gently and sidled over to a ten-sided block in which floated a much more acceptable world. It was properly discshaped, but instead of the Rimfall there was a wall of ice and instead of the Hub there was a gigantic tree, so big that its roots merged into mountain ranges.

A prism beside it held another slowly-turning disc, surrounded by little stars. But there were no ice walls around this one, just a red-gold thread that turned out on closer inspection to be a snake - a snake big enough to encircle a world. For reasons best known to itself it was biting its own tail.

Esk turned the prism over and over curiously, noticing how the little disc inside stayed resolutely upright.

Simon giggled softly. Esk replaced the snake-disc and peered carefully over his shoulder.

He was holding a small glass pyramid. There were stars in it, and occasionally he would give it a little shake so that the stars swirled up like snow in the wind, and then settled back in their places. Then he would giggle.

And beyond the stars ....

It was the Discworld. A Great A'Tuin no bigger than a small saucer toiled along under a world that looked like the work of an obsessive jeweller.

Jiggle, swirl. Jiggle, swirl, giggle. There were already hairline cracks in the glass.

Esk looked at Simon's blank eyes and then up into the hungry faces of the nearest Things, and then she reached across and pulled the pyramid out of his hands and turned and ran.

The Things didn't stir as she scurried towards them, bent almost double, with the pyramid clasped tightly to her chest. But suddenly her feet were no longer running over the sand and she was being lifted into the frigid air, and a Thing with a face like a drowned rabbit turned slowly towards her and extended a talon.

You're not really here, Esk told herself. It's only a sort of dream, what Granny calls an annaloggy. You can't really be hurt, it's all imagination. There's absolutely no harm that can come to you, it's all really inside your mind.

I wonder if it knows that?

The talon picked her out of the air and the rabbit face split like a banana skin. There was no mouth, just a dark hole, as if the Thing was itself an opening to an even worse dimension, a place by comparison with which freezing sand and moonless moonlight would be a jolly afternoon at the seaside.

Esk held the Disc-pyramid and flailed with her free hand at the claw around her. It had no effect. The darkness loomed over her, a gateway to total oblivion.

She kicked it as hard as she could.

Which was not, given the circumstances, very hard. But where her foot struck there was an explosion of white sparks and a pop -which would have been a much more satisfying bang if the thin air here didn't suck the sound away.

The Thing screeched like a chainsaw encountering, deep inside an unsuspecting sapling, a lurking and long-forgotten nail. The others around it set up a sympathetic buzzing.

Esk kicked again and the Thing shrieked and dropped her to the sand. She was bright enough to roll, with the tiny world hugged protectively to her, because even in a dream a broken ankle can be painful.

The Thing lurched uncertainly above her. Esk's eyes narrowed. She put the world down very carefully, hit the Thing very hard around the point where its shins would be, if there were shins under that cloak, and picked up the world again in one neat movement.

The creature howled, bent double, and then toppled slowly, like a sackful of coathangers. When it hit the ground it collapsed into a mass of disjointed limbs; the head rolled away and rocked to a standstill.

Is that all? thought Esk. They can hardly walk, even! When you hit them they just fall over?

The nearest Things chittered and tried to back away as she marched determinedly towards them, but since their bodies seemed to be held together more or less by wishful thinking they weren't very good at it. She hit one, which had a face like a small family of squid, and it deflated into a pile of twitching bones and bits of fur and odd ends of tentacle, very much like a Greek meal. Another was slightly more successful and had begun to shamble uncertainly away before Esk caught it a crack on one of its five shins.

It flailed desperately as it fell and brought down another two.

By then the others had managed to lurch out of her way and stood watching from a distance.

Esk took a few steps towards the nearest one. It tried to move away, and fell over.

They may have been ugly. They may have been evil. But when it came to poetry in motion, the Things had all the grace and coordination of a deck-chair.

Esk glared at them, and took a look at the Disc in its glass pyramid. All the excitement didn't seem to have disturbed it a bit.

She'd been able to get out, if this indeed was out and if the Disc could be said to be in. But how was one supposed to get back?

Somebody laughed. It was the sort of laugh

Basically, it was p'ch'zarni'chiwkov. This epiglottis-throttling word is seldom used on the Disc except by highly-paid stunt linguists and, of course, the tiny tribe of the K'turni, who invented it. It has no direct synonym, although the Cumhoolie word “squemt” ('the feeling upon finding that the previous occupant of the privy has used all the paper') begins to approach it in general depth of feeling. The closest translation is as follows:

The nasty little sound of a sword being unsheathed right behind one at just the point when one thought one had disposed of one's enemies.

Although K'tumi speakers say that this does not convey the cold sweating, heart-stopping, gut-freezing sense of the original.

It was that kind of laugh.

Esk turned around slowly. Simon drifted towards her across the sand, with his hands cupped in front of him. His eyes were tight shut.

“Did you really think it would be as easy as that? ” he said. Or something said; it didn't sound like Simon's voice, but like dozens of voices speaking'at once.

“Simon?” she said, uncertainly.

“He is of no further use to us,” said the Thing with Simon's shape. “He has shown us the way, child. Now give us our property.”

Esk backed away.

“I don't think it belongs to you,” she said, “whoever you are.”

The face in front of her opened its eyes. There was nothing there but blackness - not a colour, just holes into some other space.

“We could say that if you gave it to us we would be merciful. We could say we would let you go from here in your own shape. But there wouldn't really be much point in us saying that, would there?”

“I wouldn't believe you,” said Esk.

“Well, then.”

The Simon-thing grinned.

“You're only putting off the inevitable,” it said.

“Suits me.”

“We could take it anyway.”

“Take it, then. But I don't think you can. You can't take anything unless it's given to you, can you?”

They circled round.

“You'll give it to us,” said the Simon-thing.

Some of the other Things were approaching now, striding back across the desert with horrible jerky motions.

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