Episode 9 - When it Rains, it Pours
There are times where my luck is truly horrid.
It wasn't long after my mandated vacation following the end of the Reapers that the girls and I found ourselves in lovely Melbourne, in the south of Australia, on some random early 21st Century Earth.
"So... these cars don't run on power cells," Camilla asked as we walked past a road with vehicles streaming by. "They run by burning things?"
"Oil Petrol. Petroleum, actually," I answered. "It's essentially ancient dead things turned into this oily black fluid. They burn it for energy, in the case of the cars, to compress pistons that transfer the power to motive force. That's the sum of it anyway."
"And the pipes on the vehicles are for the waste gases?"
"Oh yes. Unfortunately, it took Humanity a while to figure out that when you've got thousands of the bloody things running in a small area, those gases build up, and you get something called smog. Rather nasty stuff. Oh, they found ways to reduce the effect, but until they switch to hydrogen-burners and electric battery motors it's going to be an issue."
Our lovely conversation about fossil fuels might have continued if I hadn't heard my sonic screwdriver suddenly let out a faint beep. I pulled it out. "Doctor?", Janias asked cautiously.
"Well well well, what do we have here?" I surveyed the reading. "Some form of temporal energy signature, and not from the TARDIS. That is completely unexpected."
"Could there be some advanced technology around?"
"I'm not sure, Cami." I shook my head slightly. "But I do know we need to investigate it. It shouldn't be here. Come along."
We walked through streets and by a posh looking convention hotel. As we walked across the back of the building along the loading dock the signal increased. "What have we here? It's moving." I picked up the pace, as did the girls. We emerged from the other side of the docking facility and began to jog down the street, my sonic's purple light blipping ever faster as we made progress.
We found ourselves entering an alleyway before the light went solid. I heard wheezing and looked up to see a figure in red leaning against the wall, catching his breath. When I pointed the sonic at him the readings came back positive. "Now that's not right, not right at all," I muttered. I stepped up toward the figure just as he looked up, getting a good look at him. Brownish hair, scruffy looking, rather skinny.
I had been about to comment on his rather out-of-place get-up for 200X-something Australia, the red robe and all, when my eyes focused on the hat on his head. Red as the robes, but there was something familiar with the way it was pointed. And then I read the gold letters on the hat.
At that point, I knew my day had just gotten enormously, terribly complicated, and that my luck was going to turn bad.
"I don't...", I started to say, but all I could do was stutter a moment as the man looked at me with fearful, forlorn eyes and the posture of a man who was always ready to run for his life. Which, given what I knew of his identity, was completely expected.
The letters on the hat? W-I-Z-Z-A-R-D.
"Rincewind?!", I spluttered. "Of all the... you? You're the source of the temporal energy?! How..."
Camilla stepped up between us and looked at him, then at me. "Doctor, what is it? Who is this man?"
"He's the worst wizard and perhaps the most unlucky individual in all of the six dimensions," I muttered. "And I think our day has just become tremendously more complicated."
I looked down at Rincewind and ran through the possibilities in my head, wondering how Rincewind had wound up here. Because, well...
The Multiverse can be a strange place, okay? That includes the Discworld. It's a disc-shaped planet that moves through space on the backs of four massive space elephants who are, in turn, standing atop the shell of a massive space turtle called the Great A'Tuin. It even has its own sun and moon that rotate around the disc.
What I was trying to figure out was how Rincewind had wound up on "Roundworld", as the Disc's wizards called it.
He had a very forlorn look on his face. I sighed and added, "Calling him the worst is a tad unfair, he's saved his world a couple of times."
"And who are you?", Rincewind asked. He seemed very... well, very depressed. And not the usual Rincewind style of melancholy. He looked like a man who'd just had what little he'd believed in yanked out from under him.
"Me? I'm the Doctor. These are my companions, Janias and Camilla." I crossed my arms. "So, you're rather lost, aren't you?"
"I'm not just lost, I'm fictional," Rincewind answered. He held up a book. I took it and saw that it was, well, one of the Discworld novels with him in it. "All made up by some bastard named..."
"Pratchett," I answered. "Clever bloke, very witty. Big fan myself." I looked to the girls before returning my attentions to the lost wizard. "Okay, it looks like it's time for some invoking of sixth dimensional spacey-wacey science. You're not fictional. Sir Terry simply... well... it's very complicated and it involves power of mortal thought and..." I felt a blank expression cross my face as my mind failed to grasp the mechanisms involved here. "I'm not sure how it works. But you're not just fictional. Frankly, everyone is probably fictional to someone out in six-dimensional space."
The thought that this applied to me as well crossed my mind. I decided that if it was true, I had a few complaints to issue to my author about things.
Seeing that what I was saying had little effect on Rincewind, I clapped my hands together. "Well, I have always fancied a trip to the Disc. How about I take you back to Ankh-Morpork?"
Curiosity showed on that gaunt face. "How would you do that, huh? Are you a wizard too or something?"
"Something like that." I held out my remote control and materialized the TARDIS beside us. "She's a ship. She can travel through six dimensions of space-time," I explained to him. "I'm a little curious about how she'll handle the Disc's quantum wibbly-wobbly field."
I opened the door and we entered. Well, not all of us. Rincewind stood at the threshold and looked in with great fear and trepidation. "Well, come along Rincewind," I said politely.
"It's... you know, I'm not... I just know there's something horrible in here that will try to eat me or possess me or something."
"Not in this case," I assured him. "My TARDIS is very friendly and chipper. You'll be... reasonably safe."
Rincewind didn't move.
I sighed and leaned against the rail. "Well, if you want to stay here, I mean, trying to fit in on 21st Century Earth with automobiles and the Internet and all of that is going to be pretty exciting, a regular adventure. Surely more enjoyable than going back to tired old Ankh-Morpork and that suffocating boredom at the Unseen University, I could see why you'd choose to stay..."
It was rather impressive how quickly Rincewind stepped in and went to the controls.
I closed the door. "Well, now that we've settled that... off we go to the Disc. First things first." I brought out my sonic and scanned Rincewind with it.
"Sonic screwdriver. Mostly harmless. Mostly." I felt it appropriate to not make things seem too safe. Rincewind wouldn't believe it. Better for him to think it was just potentially unsafe. "I'm getting a sample of the temporal energy permeating your body. It'll let me bring you back to the moment you fell through into this Earth."
"As long as it's not where."
"I was being chased," he clarified.
That got him a blank look from me, my way of pointing out that "being chased" didn't necessarily narrow down the possibilities. "Was it in Ankh-Morpork?", I asked simply.
"Then I think you'll be fine." I patted him on the shoulder and fed the temporal energy signature into the TARDIS. ?"Just a few adjustments and..." I pulled the lever.
A couple of seconds passed and the TARDIS lurched heavily under us. We all went flying. Rincewind screamed.
I struggled back to the controls as the lurching subsided. "Well, we materialized," I announced. "I'm just not sure why the ride was so bumpy."
"it always gets bumpy when things are about to go crazy," Janias complained.
Rincewind stepped up gingerly to the door. With a final sigh of resignation he opened it. Outside I could see the cloudy skies and cobble-stoned streets I'd expected. Rincewind stepped out and ran his hands alongside a nearby wall, moving down toward the nearest street. "It worked," he said, seeming rather shocked. But not surprising given Rincewind's usual experiences. A moment later his face fell. "So, what's going to go wrong next?"
"I'm not sure," I admitted. I had my own leery feelings about the situation, since the violence of our journey seemed too great for merely entering the Disc. I looked down at my sonic screwdriver. "And I'm still picking up that temporal energy source from you. It must be somewhere in the city."
I took the precaution of locking the TARDIS after we all stepped out. As we walked along what looked to be a standard alleyway in Ankh-Morpork, a curious and very... memorable smell came to our attention. The girls' faces curled in displeasure. I took in a partial breath and let out a cough. "Well, that'll clear the sinuses. I always wondered what the Ankh-Morpork atmosphere smelled like. Now all we need to do is watch the Ankh catch fire for that perfect Ankh-Morpork experience."
"Won't happen for a while yet, it's still spring," Rincewind said.
And then we heard it, the thunk of something hitting the streets. We looked back down the alleyway, or rather a T-section formed by a second alley leading into this one, right beside where the TARDIS had appeared.
There were a group of men - and one possible woman since the shape could go either way - standing in front of the TARDIS. They had what looked to be pretty rough-worn clothing. One was missing an eye and all had scars. I was sure one was a dwarf, though possibly on the tall side. And each had a dagger in their hand. "So, gent, have you any dollars for charity?", the lead man asked, a wicked look on his face. Ankh-Morpork criminals weren't about to let things like people appearing in magic boxes get in the way of money, after all.
I reached my hand out and took Janias before she could brandish her lightsaber. "May I see your Guild licenses?"
"Heh. Hear that everyone?" The leader laughed. "He wants to see our licenses."
They all laughed.
So... unlicensed thieves. I could see color fading from Rincewind's face. To be an unlicensed thief in Ankh-Morpork for any good amount of time, you had to be either completely lucky or very nasty, because the Thieves' Guild took... exception to unlicensed thievery (due to how much they were held responsible for the city's crime rate). They were big on not permitting repeat offenses.
"Hows about we show them our license?!", the leader roared over the laughter. "C'mon out Cobbly!"
The name alone indicated what we were about to face. The thumping sound of rock hitting stone and the scraping of rock against stone was the next clue, so I already knew what to expect when a figure that had to be eight feet tall loomed around the corner.
A troll. With a big, big club, and the belt of skulls to go with what looked to be a loincloth. Gang symbols were etched into its brown and, well, light brown flesh. Its flesh being solid metamorphical rock, for those unfamiliar with this world's trolls.
"Cobbly, I've got a pack of the best Slab in the city if you smash that gent's stupid brains in. Maybe his girlies will be more co-or-operative."
"I can take him," Janias murmured.
"No, I'm not having you carve him up," I insisted in a low voice. Somehow I imagined having a troll and these thieves carved up by a lightsaber would be just strange enough to draw the attention of the city's varied authorities. And I didn't want trouble with the likes of the City Watch or the wizards at Unseen University, since to them a lightsaber would seem like a magic instrument and invite attention.
"You see my good friend here, right?", I retorted, grabbing Rincewind by the arm. "Notice the pointy hat and robes? That's who you're messing with if you keep this up. I'm sure there's something revolting enough we can turn you into."
For a brief moment it looked like it had worked. Unfortunately, it was a warm spring day, and without something like a clockwork fan Cobbly's silicon brain was too hot to help him think things through. Presuming he had enough of a brain left if he was a Slab-user. He charged, club raised.
Rincewind took off like a jackrabbit. I decided to follow. It wasn't like I couldn't summon the TARDIS back on my own anyway.
There was lumbering behind us as the troll advanced, his friends racing ahead. It spurred us on to go even faster.
Rincewind still outran us all.
He kept going, in fact, even as it was clear we'd outran the gang and were in the main city streets. I could guess he was going to keep running until he got back to the University. My Companions and I followed until the crowds were thick enough that we couldn't keep sight of him. I came to a stop and let out a breath.
"I could have chased them off!", Janias insisted.
"Have you ever fought a Wookiee or a Houk on spice, Janias?", I asked. "Because that's still not as bad as a Troll who's been cooking his brain regularly with stuff like Slab. And even if you won, they'd leave remains, and given how this place works I know it'd just get the Watch or even the Wizards involved. I'd like to avoid that kind of trouble here."
"Besides, we can just summon the TARDIS back," Cami pointed out. "We've returned Rincewind to his home, is there anything else to do?"
"Find out what's causing this temporal energy signature, for one," I remarked.
"Let's hurry then, because this place reeks," Janias complained. "And I..."
Her expression changed to one of deep concern. She turned to face beyond Cami and I, prompting us to turn as well.
A building nearby was having something heavy looking, kept in a crate, hefted into its second floor by a pulley. I could see from where I was that the pulley was failing.
And in its shadow was a young lady pushing a stroller. Yes, there was a baby in it.
I sighed. This is how the Discworld tends to work. Events don't just happen, they happen within a narrative. The world is a collection of stories that operate, or at least tend toward, certain narrative rules.
The rope snapped. There was a scream as the woman looked up in time to see something come down to crush her.
Janias shouted, "No!", and reached out with the Force. The crate went horizontal and slammed into the building, smashing in the process. There was the distinct shattering of glass, with broken shards joining the splinters of wood debris.
All eyes turned on us. The man who had been supervising the operation, seemingly ignorant of how his faulty rope had nearly killed someone, pointed an accusing finger our way. "You... that was an entire shipment of fine crystal balls! I'm goin' to be ruined!"
The woman cradled her child and looked our way as well. "You tried to kill my baby!"
"What are you talking about?", Janias asked, utterly mystified. "I stopped it from falling on..."
"She must've cut the rope with her magic!", the businessman accused. "Lookin' to harm my business!"
"You tried to kill..."
"...must be a witch!"
"...attackin' fine citizens like that..."
Ankh-Morpork was always given to street theater, and between the man undoubtedly not wanting to recognize his own screw-up and the woman's surprise and fear, well, I could see them being initially antagonistic until their passions cooled. But Janias couldn't even get a word in before the crowd was screaming "Witch!" with great fervor and anger. Even for Ankh-Morpork it didn't seem... right.
I opened my mouth to defend my companion, already reaching for my psychic paper to aid in that, when I let out a gag almost before I knew why. My senses were assaulted, violently, by something putrid and horrible, a smell that overwhelmed the odor of the city with something far worse. My hand went to my head as my brain spun under the imbalance it felt; my nose was failing to sense this new stench, but my mind insisted it was there. "Do you smell that?", I said hoarsely.
"I smell a witch!", someone in the crowd screamed.
Looking at Janias' face, she sensed it too, although she was also looking with increasing concern on what looked to be a forming lynch mob.
"Smell what?", Camila asked. "I don't smell..." And then her face twisted. She had normal Human senses, but I imagined that her mind was such that, at least in the rules of the Discworld, she could be receptive to such sense as well.
My eyes scanned the growing crowd. I had a feeling on what I'd find, because I recognized this now.
And there he was. Standing amidst the crowd, scowling, a figure in black. A voice came to my head. Filth! Evil! I sense you harlots now, and you will burn!
I searched the horrible face for features, and found myself looking through his eyes... and to the crowd beyond. He had no eyes. He had nothing behind them either. I could literally see through his head at the points where his eyes should be.
Rincewind had, indeed, been the harbinger of bad luck for us.
"Doctor, I see a man," I heard Camilla whisper, her voice barely audible even this close compared to the angry mob. "But his eyes..."
"Yes." I nodded, knowing the name of this new foe. Somehow the unlicensed thieves and their drugged up troll enforcer seemed charming now compared to what we were facing.
"It's the Cunning Man."
Facing a growing mob is a pretty sober experience. Mobs may be made of individuals, with their own minds, but get enough people together and give them reason to feel fear or anger or just sheer crabbyness and you'll get something closer to a hive mind.
Now take that combustible mix and throw in an old madman ghost of bottomless hatred for anything smacking to him of witchcraft, who's hatred was so pervasive that simply being in proximity of it could drive anyone, even witches themselves, to acts of hate against anyone who could be a "witch".
We might as well have been sitting on a barrel of dynamite. At least the smell would improve.
"This is all just a terrible misunderstanding," I said aloud, knowing it wouldn't work, even as the stench of the Cunning Man's corruptive mind continued to assault my senses.
"Doctor, I don't think they're listening," Janias murmured. "Whatever that darkness is..."
"Quiet, Janias, you've gotten us into enough trouble as it..." I saw her bewildered expression and caught myself. I took as deep a breath as I dared. "He's even getting to me," I murmured. "He's even getting to me."
By this point quite a few blunt objects were showing amongst the growing crowd. I grabbed the girls' hands and prepared to run for it before we were completely and hopelessly surrounded.
The chipper voice told me who it was even before I turned to look into the shiny, mirror-like breastplate of armor moving through the crowd. I was the only one present who was taller than the newcomer, giving me a higher angle to look at the bits of red hair showing under a steel helmet. Honest blue eyes scanned the crowd and the expression never wavered from what I figured to be the standard cheeryness of its owner.
Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson looked over to the broken crate and shattered crystal balls. And then he looked up to the pulley and back down to where the snapped rope had fallen. "Mr. Krist, I thought you were going to replace that bad rope yesterday? I told you it wouldn't hold another heavy load."
The business owner turned from where he was glaring hatefully at us and took on a sudden expression of embarrassment and shame. "Yes, well... had a last minute order, I had to get it taken care of, you know how it is Captain."
"That could have seriously hurt someone, Mister Krist," Carrot pointed out with just a hint of reproachment.
"The witch made it snap!", Krist accused. The stench that my nose did not smell was growing. He pointed a finger at Janias. "She did it!"
"This is preposterous!", Camilla thundered. "It had snapped already, she just kept it from hitting that poor woman and her baby!"
Unfortunately, with the Cunning Man present the potential victim was not on our side. "She tried to kill my baby!", the mother accused. "She's a witch!"
Carrot nodded and stepped up to us. I may have been taller, but I knew those muscles bulging under his chainmail were a greater advantage. "Are you a witch, ma'am?"
"Not anymore," I answered for her. "She still has a little magic talent, but she spends her time traveling with me, Captain." I smiled at him and extended a hand. "i'm the Doctor, Captain. Pleased to meet you."
"Are you from the Free Hospital, Doctor...?"
"I'm new to the city, actually. Well, relatively new, I've read up on it quite a bit. Your reputation proceeds you, Captain Ironfoundersson." As an afterthought I added, "And it's just 'the Doctor'."
"I see. Well, Doctor, I would like your statement."
I nodded. As I went to give it, I felt the stench growing. The crowd had grown, as every Morporkian loved their street theater, but that gave the Cunning Man more people to influence. If things held on even longer even Carrot's natural charisma wouldn't work. "My friend acted to save lives, sir, and that is the truth."
"He's protecting the witches!", Krist shouted. "He's a witch-lover!"
I saw the Cunning Man had inched closer as he moved through the crowd. We were running out of time. "Captain, a moment with my friends?" When he nodded I stepped back and huddled with the girls. "Do you trust me? Because there's only one way out of this."
"Of course we trust you," Camilla insisted.
"That means you must do exactly as I say," I remarked. "Don't worry about anything else. I'll make sure you're all right."
"Okay,..." Janias looked befuddled. Undoubtedly she was working just as hard on keeping the Cunning Man out of her head.
The thought of Janias taken over by him sent a shudder through me.
"Right then." I stood up and turned to Carrot. "Captain, in the interests of civic peace, my friends will turn themselves over to your custody and agree to be kept at Pseudopolis Yard tonight."
They looked at each other warily. The crowd also looked a little out of sorts.
Carrot, however, didn't. He could see what I was doing. "That is very good of them, Doctor."
"Indeed." My voice lowered. "And I trust they will be well-treated in the protective custody of you and Commander Vimes?"
"Of course." Carrot nodded, his reply as hushed as mine was.
"Very well. Girls..."
They looked at me with some trepidation, but they didn't hold back. Each stepped up to Carrot, who led them through the gathering crowd. My eyes followed them, looking for any sign of an attack, but the crowd's hate and fear was draining away and the Cunning Man's influence wasn't enough right now to overpower Carrot's sheer charisma.
With the girls gone, the city people started milling away, leaving Mister Krist to clean up his broken crystal. I stood quietly as they did so, thinking of what to do next. The Cunning Man was loose in the city and I still had this temporal energy source to investigate, with my only lead being the one man in the six dimensions who ran faster than I could (well, naturally faster).
Well, first things first, I had to get the TARDIS back. Then I could deal with the girls' stay with the Watch and hunt this trouble down. Since I didn't want to summon the TARDIS in the middle of the street I walked down a ways and stepped into an alley. I brought my remote control out and gripped it. I started to think of the TARDIS...
And let myself get distracted.
There was the sound of a boot pushing quietly against cobbles behind me. I turned to face the sound.
A sharp pain filled my head as something landed on it. I collapsed over, feeling everything go black.
When the blackness faded I sat up. I looked to the TARDIS control in my hand...
...and it wasn't there. Instead I found a note.
"Apologies for the bump on the head. My apprentice doesn't know his own strength. You will find his license number and mine printed on reverse should you wish to lodge a complaint.
Purchase of a year's protection now at a low price of twenty dollars, return of locket included!
Ankh-Morpork Thieves' Guild, Lic. No. 390874"
I let out a groan and a small curse for ever running into Rincewind. The man's luck had truly rubbed off on me.
I realized how much it had when I reached for my sonic screwdriver and found it was gone as well. I was frantic as I reached for the sonic disruptor on my waist and found that it was also gone. A quick check of another pocket showed my psychic paper had also been removed.
Now I was alone and unarmed in the middle of Ankh-Morpork.
God, er, Gods damn Rincewind.
Defying my luck, I murmured, "How could things get any..."
"There he is!"
I looked down the alley and saw the unlicensed thieves from before, with their troll enforcer already moving toward me.
When it rains, it pours, they say. In Ankh-Morpork, it always seems to be pouring.
The troll "Cobbly" had his club raised and ready to smash my head into pulp, and even if I evaded him there was nearly a half-dozen unlicensed thieves ready to explore my anatomy the hard way (the hard way for me, that is). And I was utterly defenseless.
A young lady's voice rang out. "Get out of the way, sir!" I habitually moved to the side.
There was a familiar sound; it was my sonic disruptor, set to a high power mode, and the sonic waves it emitted slammed into Cobbly with enough force to send him flying backward and into his gang. A hand grabbed mine. "Come on, we'll lose them over on Treacle Mine, there's a Watch House there!"
I got a glimpse of my rescuer as we ran out into the street. Brown hair flowed out from under a tattered looking wool cap of blue color; her jacket was a very faded blue and her trousers looked like a re-hemmed set of men's trousers, of similarly-faded blue. She had my sonic disruptor in her free hand while the other grasped mine. We ran down the streets and random alleys before arriving in a neighborhood milling with incredibly short people - dwarfs, in other words. In comparison to them she wasn't much taller, showing she was of a rather young age herself (even accounting for the malnutrition of a street urchin).
Only once we were within sight of the Treacle Mine Road Watch House did she stop, allowing us to catch our breath. She offered the disruptor to me. "Billy Lanny swiped it from you, Mister, but I got it back."
I accepted it with a smile. "Thank you kindly, young lady. He didn't happen to swipe anything else?"
"No, sir. I came up just as he was rifling your pockets."
The young lady was better spoken than a normal city urchin, I noticed. "Well, my thanks again. I'm the Doctor."
"Doctor? That's some sort of nickname?"
"Of a sorts," I conceded. "And you are...?"
"Don't really have a name, my mum died when I was little. I guess you could use my friend's name for me." She flushed a little from impending embarrassment. "Great-Are-The-Blessings-of-Om's-Charity."
"Ah, an Omnian friend." I winked at her. "Well, that's not too embarrassing a name. 'Charity' certainly fits, doesn't it?"
"I suppose," she conceded. "I'll probably use it when I'm old enough to join the Watch."
"You want to be a Watchwoman, eh? Well, you've got the good parts down, I'd say." I leaned against the wall of the nearest building and looked over the sonic disruptor. It was better than nothing, but I wouldn't feel better until I had my sonic screwdriver back. Finding it, though... another problem on top of the problems I had. I tinkered with the disruptor for a moment; it was never made for the sensitive work the screwdriver was capable of, but it did have some scanning capability. I held it up and watched the purple tip light up. "Temporal energy sources are getting stronger. Not good."
"Is that some kind of magic?", Charity asked. "It's too small to be a wizard staff, that I know."
"It's... well, it's a sort of magic I suppose," I answered. "It's something called technology. Very advanced machinery. And when machines get advanced enough, well, it can look like magic if you don't know what it is."
"I just don't want you to get into any trouble with the wizards is all," Charity said. "They get nasty about it when they think people are playing wizard and haven't been to the University."
"So I've heard." I tinkered with the settings a little. "So, I'm rather new to the city, do you think you could show me to..." I stopped. At the end of my senses a stomach-churning stench was starting to come to my attention. "Oh no. He's near again, I can smell it."
"Who's near?," Charity asked. "It isn't Foul Ole Ron, is it?"
"I wish. It's..." Yes, the stench was getting stronger. I looked over to a nearby crate of, well, something and, after gingerly testing it, stood on it a moment and looked down both sides of the street.
In the far distance, down toward what I presumed was the Shades, I could see a black figure looming over the dwarves milling about. He passed through the curtain-covered sedan of one of the conservative dwarves without notice.
"It's... I'm not a wizard, but you know how wizards can see things others can't? I'm a bit like that." I got off the crate and took her hand. "And right now we've got a malevolent spirit of utter hate walking toward us."
Charity looked at me with confusion, which turned to realization. "Does this have anything to do with how people are screamin' at ladies with warts or too many cats, calling them 'witches'?"
"Remarkably astute of you, Charity. I'm thinking that yes, yes it does." I drew in a breath. "And I think it's after me."
It occured to me, at that point, that the Cunning Man was after me. Undoubtedly he'd sensed something of my nature, and that would make me an ideal host for him.
I thought of the damage that might happen if the Cunning Man took me over and couldn't suppress the shudder.
"Do you want to get help from the wizards?"
I thought about it. But I wasn't sure they'd listen very much, especially if they came to see me as a magic practitioner. No, someone more understanding, I thought.
...or someone who had a foot in the wizards' door without being a full wizard. And someone with experience in temporal matters too, a sort of two birds-one stone possibility for me.
"How far is Tenth Egg Street?", I asked.
"Not far," she said. "We can go faster if we cut through Quarry Lane."
"Ah." I wondered about the risks of leading the Cunning Man through the center of Ankh-Morpork's troll neighborhood. But the sooner I got where I was going, the better.
"What do you want on Tenth Egg, sir?", Charity asked as we walked along, away from the approaching specter.
"Help," I replied succinctly.
We had no immediate sight of the Cunning Man when we stepped up to our destination. "This is where you want help?", Charity asked skeptically. "This is..."
"...perfect." I smiled.
After all, in my line of work, some good Boffo was always useful.
The Boffo Novelty and Joke Shop, No. 4 Tenth Egg Street, stood before us. I stepped up and listened as the whoopie cushion let out its simulated flatulence. A step around a skeleton hanging over the entrance and I was able to go straight to the counter. Charity glanced around the shop as I waited for the man at the counter to turn to me. He held something up before lowering it dejectedly. "I'm just no good at this," he lamented.
"Comedy is hard," I agreed. "I would like to speak to Mrs. Proust. I need some... special assistance."
I waited as he looked over to a hole in the floor. "Mother! A gent is up here askin' for you."
There was an exasperated sound from beneath us. I turned and faced a wart-faced old hag as she rose from the floor with a trapdoor mechanism. "Ah, Mrs. Proust, I'm the Doctor, and this is my friend Charity."
She looked at me warily. "Now you're a strange one. There's something off about you. About both of you." She gave a look toward Charity.
That intrigued me a bit, but I had other issues to focus on. "Mrs. Proust, I'm in a spot of bother at the moment and need some special assistance. From an acquaintance of yours."
"Oh, an 'acquaintance' you say," she asked suspiciously.
"Yes. There is a certain lady out and about who has a very unique job. You might remember her because her staff doesn't have a knob on it like certain others do."
Mrs. Proust narrowed her eyes. "Yes, I know who you're talking about." There was a moment's pause. "You've been around a rather nasty stink, haven't you?"
Mrs. Proust sighed. "There's nothing my... acquaintance can do to help you with the Cunning Man, Doctor. We all have to face him in our own way."
"I imagined not, but that's not the only issue."
"You've got other problems than the Cunning Man being after you, Doctor? Oh my, what a complicated life you must lead."
I knew I was being scrutinized, closely. Mrs. Proust was a City Witch and had the instincts to go with that appellation, not to mention the skills. "Let's just say your acquaintance and I have similar... interests. And I'm picking up something very distressing in this city that relates to her interest."
Mrs. Proust looked to think for a moment. "Then she'll find you, sir. She'll find you. In the meanwhile, I'll send you and the young lady out the back door. Try to stay out of trouble, the Cunning Man will find you more easily if there's trouble. And keep running."
I allowed myself a small smile. "Running, ma'am, is one of my many talents."
After we left the shop I brought up my sonic disruptor and began tinkering with it. "You can head on if you wish," I said to Charity. "It can be dangerous, following me."
She gave me a bemused look. "Sir, it's Ankh-Morpork, this entire city is dangerous."
Charity had me there.
A part of me wondered about this girl. Not so much her, well, charitable nature, but what Mrs. Proust had said. That she sensed something about her. Granted, this was the Disc. She could be a potential Witch or a Goddess in disguise or just a girl who'd cut through the Unreal Estate over by the University. Or a werewolf, I supposed.
"You live on the street?", I asked.
"Sometimes. I get beds at homes sometimes. The Watch sometimes gives me a bed at a Watch house."
"Because of your friends in the Watch." I nodded.
"And I do odd jobs when they need doin'."
"Of course." I got out the letter left to me by the thieves who took my TARDIS control. "Do you know this chap?"
She looked over the letter. "Oh, the old Pincher. Swell chap. He's being generous, offering a twenty dollar protection with your suit and all. He probably figured you were some shop-owning gent who dresses up a bit instead of really posh."
"He's got a... device of mine, he thinks it's a locket. I need it to get something of mine back."
"And you don't have twenty dollars," Charity realized. "Well, he might let you get the locket back for a few."
"I don't have local currency," I clarified. "And anything I could sell is on my TARDIS."
"What's a TARDIS?"
"It's... a ship of sorts. It'd be hard for me to explain without showing it off, and the only way to get it back is with my locket," I answered. "Well, I'll have to deal with Mister Pincher when the time comes. But for now..." I held up my sonic disruptor. "I need to find my sonic screwdriver."
The sonic disruptor wasn't meant to be used as a scanning tool. I'd never zero in on the temporal disturbance, or Rincewind, with it. I needed my sonic screwdriver.
Thankfully, my disruptor and screwdriver were designed to find each other.
We moved through the city at some speed, staying out of trouble and avoiding the crowds. I kept the disruptor inside my jacket, checking it only in alleyways when we wouldn't be seen by too many people.
We wound up along the Ankh and back on Treacle Mine Road. A path led down to under a bridge. "Oh no," I heard Charity mumble. "Doctor, you don't want to go down there."
"Oh?", I asked... and right afterward I realized why. "Oh dear. This is... their hideout, isn't it?"
"Oh yes," Charity replied.
I took in a deep breath. "Well, it will be hard... but I really need my sonic screwdriver back." And so I continued walking down, Charity at my side.
At the bottom was a fire being tended by several figures. As I took in the sight of them, I was assailed by the Smell.
The Cunning Man's stench wasn't a physical one, it was the brain trying to process the sheer corruption and rot of his soul. This was physical, this was a stench that had its own life. And it only belonged to one man.
"Bugrit! Millennium hand and shrimp!"
I looked onto the overcoat clad figure that was Foul Ole Ron, sitting by a fire. Beyond him was the cast I expected: Coffin Henry, Sideways Arnold, Altogether Andrews, and the Duck Man. These men were the most effective beggars in all of Ankh-Morpork, mostly because anyone would give them money to make them go away. Neville St. Clair holds nothing to these gentlemen.
Ron's hand pulled up from a kettle he was stirring. I almost groaned at seeing my sonic screwdriver was the stirring tool.
"What is it you want?", one voice called out. He had a duck on his head. I knew better than to bring the animal up in conversation.
"I lost a couple pieces of property earlier," I explained. "And it would seem you gentlemen found them."
"Found 'em in an alley, yeah," Altogether Andrews said, although I wasn't sure which personality it was. "Some poor bloke was laid out. Weird stuff. Wallet told me Ron was from the Palace."
"That bloke was me," I explained. It made my head throb again.
"So, if this stuff is yours, we get a finder's fee right? Only fair."
The voice didn't come from anywhere in particular, or so it seemed. I noticed a little gray dog looking up from the fire. It was not the kind of animal you'd associate with the canine varieties. One could only guess how many breeds of dog existed in his DNA.
The dog looked at us and said, "Woof."
"Ah, the brains of the outfit, no offense Duck Man." I smirked and looked down at the dog.
The dog's mouth moved. "Why're you lookin' at the dog? Everyone knows dogs can't talk."
"Actually, I've met one before. His name was Mouse. Rather fine canine, good friend of mine. As smart as you, I imagine."
Charity pulled my sleeve. The dog shifted its head. "Dunno what you're sayin', mister."
"You know how wizards can see things as they really are?", I asked. "I'm a Time Lord. I have a similar capability."
"Gaspode, right?", Charity asked. "I heard talk that Captain Carrot knows a talking dog."
There was a moment of silence. "Okay, fine, you're onto me. I'm a talkin' dog. But that doesn't change nuthin'. You've got a finder's fee for us? I'd be surprised that a fine poshy type would take back anythin' used by Foul Ole Ron, though I won't stop ya."
"I'm a newcomer to the city, I've got nothing of value," I answered. "But if I can get my personal transportation back, I wouldn't mind making it worth your while."
"And I ask, what's to stop you from just runnin' off, leavin' this poor doggy and his friends without their proper reward?"
"My good word is about all I have." I almost put my hand on my sonic disruptor, now under my jacket. I had once programmed it and the screwdriver to be able to remotely pull in the other. But would it work with someone holding the screwdriver? And I couldn't pull the psychic paper back like that. Even if I got the screwdriver back, I knew getting the paper back would require... harsher measures than I was prepared to consider.
Plus, well, it didn't feel... right. Even if it was my thing, looking at the "Cantering Crew" you couldn't help but feel pity for people who lived in these circumstances. I wanted to give them some kind of aid if I could.
"Ah, wallet's no good," Coffin Henry said dismissively, tossing my psychic paper behind him. "Keeps sayin' I'm from the University. No good messin' with magic, I tell you."
Charity walked over and picked the psychic paper up. "It says I'm an Inspector in the City Watch."
"See? Magic." Coffin Henry shook his head.
Charity handed me the paper back and I stuck it in my pocket. "It shows people what I want them to see. Or if you're handling it, it goes by what position you consider important. Or it just randomly plucks one out if you don't have one." I didn't breathe in any relief yet. I still needed the sonic screwdriver back, and Ron was hanging onto it.
"So, good words don't feed, you don't have nuthin' to offer?", Gaspode asked.
I'd decided on a new tack. "I would point out to you, gentlemen, that my little rod there is just as magical as the wallet."
"Yeah, what's it do?", Duck Man asked.
"Just about everything," I answered. "In the wrong hands, there's no telling what damage it could do."
"Bugrit," Ron muttered.
"Even so, you want the thingie back, we deserve sumthin'."
"And I need it back if I'm to give you something."
It was clear we were at an impasse (or "imp arse" if you prefer). As much as I hated the thought of it, I might have to try the disruptor's link to the screwdriver and take it back that way.
My decision was made when even the stench of Foul Ole Ron and his cohorts was becoming overpowered by the one returning in my head. Gaspode's head went up. "That's a new smell, ain't it?"
"Yes," I remarked. "He's called the Cunning Man. Old, crazy spirit of hate. I think he's after me."
"I don't want nuthin' to do with that kind of thing, you hear? Push off."
"Not without my little magic rod," I said. I crossed my arms and sighed. "I guess I'll wait for him to devour us all. Burn us from inside out, that's what he does."
"Why don't you just come with us?", Charity asked. "You can make sure the Doctor gives you the pay you're asking after he gets his things back."
Gaspode let out a frustrated whine. "I don't do the adventurin' stuff anymore. Not since I got pulled to Uberwald."
"Then you'll just have to trust I'll bring you some suitable compensation." I looked behind me and then up. I thought I could see the Cunning Man in the distance, a black spec on the sickly green miasma that was the River Ankh. "But I can't take no for an answer. There's a problem in this city and I need my tool to deal with it."
For a moment I almost took out the sonic disruptor and used it. A relatively gentle broad-arc blast would knock them over and startle them, hopefully enough that Ron's grip on the screwdriver would lessen. Then I'd just activate the link and pull it in like a magnet.
Charity stepped up. "I'll get some dollars for you as soon as I can, if you help. I do little jobs. It'll take a while."
"I think I know you. Ain't you friends to ol' Nobby?"
I raised an eyebrow. Charity nodded. "I know him, yeah."
"And I've seen you passin' 'round pamphlets for the other one, that foreign one."
Something in my head went click, but I couldn't think of what it was at the moment given how focused I was on the screwdriver, and on the approaching black figure coming over the Ankh.
A thought came to me. Even if I left... would he come for Ron and his crew? Would he try to possess them or otherwise harm them? There was no telling what a spirit like that might do. And he continued coming toward us, strolling along the Ankh...
I looked from that distant figure and to the water below him. And then I looked to Ron and his friends.
Specifically, their fire.
I ran forward, ignoring the screwdriver for the moment and yanking one of the old wooden planks they were burning. The heat of the flame baked my face as I held it up and made sure I had a good bit of fire to it. Holding it away so I didn't set myself on fire I threw the plank into the Ankh between me and the Cunning Man. He was still about ten feet away from the point the plank landed, but I could throw something like that only so far.
The plank hit the Ankh with an audible "gloop" and sank. The fire started to disappear.
I'd been counting too much on something on the Ankh being easily combustible. Instead the Ankh's thickness was going to stifle the flame. "So well for that pl..."
A geyser of fire erupted from the surface of the Ankh. Flames began to spread outward from where my thrown flame had landed, making the entire river burn. Beyond the flames I could see the Cunning Man stop and bring his arms up protectively. He started to back away.
"That's right!", I shouted. "I know about you! I know you don't like fire, you miserable old ghost! Now bugger off!"
With the flames forming a barrier across the river, we had time. We had more if the Cunning Man was suitably scared of me for the moment now that he had seen I knew how to fight him. I turned back to the fireplace. "Gentlemen, I hate to be rude, but I need that screwdriver back, and I need it back now. I'll bring you something later when I'm sure the city is safe."
Gaspode looked from the flames and back to me. A little whine came from his throat. "Sure, fine. Word of honor and all that. Take it."
"Feel free to follow if you want," I added as Gaspode retrieved the screwdriver from Ron and brought it up to me in his mouth. I tried not to grimace as I took my prize tool back, now permeated with Gaspode's saliva and a whiff of Ron's odor. The Smell was likely part of my suit already as it was. I was thankful I'd paid Garak to make a few extra copies of it (after Mitakihara and the Citadel I'd learned the value of backup suits in the wardrobe).
With that work done, we left the Crew behind.
After we were back on street level, I wiped off the screwdriver with the corner of my jacket and brought it up. The purple tip lit up. "There you are, my dear," I said, smiling. "Back where you belong."
"Why do you call it a screwdriver?"
"Because it's always been called that. I didn't give it the name." I made sure Ron's use of it as a kettle stirrer hadn't caused any damage and ran the test functions a few more times. With that done I scanned for the temporal energy. Knowing full results would take a bit, I looked to Charity. Something of what Gaspode had said about knowing her had prickled at my brain. "So, I've heard of Corporal Nobby Nobbs. Who's this other fellow that Gaspode was talking about?"
"Constable Visit," she answered. "He's the one who named me. I deliver his pamphlets to him when they come out of the printers. And sometimes when ships from Omnia bring new ones I help him with them."
"I see." My brain was putting together facts, but I wanted to make sure. "How did you meet them?"
Charity's eyes looked distant for a moment. "It's, well... it's a bit of a blur to me. I remember... when I was little, just livin' on the streets alone, I was a match girl."
And that did it. My brain put the facts together on just who this girl was, and why she was special.
I didn't have to ask her to continue, Charity did on her own. "I'm not sure of my birthday, so I don't know how old I actually am. But back about six winters ago, I was out on Hogswatchnight. It was cold and snowing and I was sick and hungry. I went to the tobacco shop on Money Trap Lane and laid down at the steps because I was feeling sleepy." She looked up at me. "I... I don't think I was going to wake up either. I just remember it being so cold that I thought I'd sleep forever. But I remember... someone in a Hogfather suit. He picked me up and handed me to Constable Visit. And they took me on to the Watch House and gave me food and hot cocoa."
I nodded. "Awfully kind of them. And that's how you got to know them?"
"Yes. It's just... sometimes I'm not sure I was supposed to."
"Funny how our lives turn out." I said that, knowing that she had a reason for feeling that way, and realizing why Mrs. Proust had considered there to be something "off" about Charity. She was supposed to sleep forever that Hogswatchnight. The Narrativium of the Discworld was striking yet again, bringing about the story of the poor Little Match Girl fated to die in the snow.
And so she had died. And her death was to be attended to by, well, Death. Tall fellow, black robes, scythe so sharp it could cut sound, TALKS LIKE THIS.
It was a special Hogswatch that night, though. Death was filling in for the Hogfather - the Discworld's counterpart to old Kris Kringle - and he had his own ideas about how the story should end. He decided to give the poor girl a present, the greatest present he could ever give.
And so the Little Match Girl lived.
And now... now she was at my side, helping me to recover my tools and protect her home from whatever threats this growing temporal energy posed.
Some presents are so great that they go beyond their recipients to benefit others.
I was diverted from my thoughts on the matter by the results of my sonic screwdriver scan. "Oi, that's not good."
"The temporal energy is growing stronger," I said. "There's an open time tear somewhere in Ankh-Morpork. And it's growing."
Charity was quick on the uptake. "And that could destroy the city."
I nodded stiffly. "The city, yes. And if it's not stopped... it'll grow until the quantum variable field, I mean, the magic field around the Disc is entirely destabilized." I was answered by a quick intake of breath. These were stakes I was familiar with though. "Ready to help me save the world, Little Match Girl?"
The reply was immediate. Charity nodded and said, "Yes."
"Then let's go find Mister Pincher," I said. "I need to get my TARDIS back."
We found Mister Pincher easily enough, with my sonic screwdriver locking onto the TARDIS remote. We were around Sator Square when we found the gentleman standing in an alleyway and looking at what I presumed were the day's gains. Standing beside him was a tall man who, if not for his brown hair and sullen expression, might have passed for Carrot.
A third man was passed out on the ground between them.
"Now, what did we do wrong this time?", the older man said, clearly repeating a long-used line.
"Not hit 'im so hard," the apprentice mumbled.
"You'll never make it in the Guild if you hurt people, Bumper. Guild policy is clear about that sort of thing."
Sharing a glance with Charity, I watched them check the man's pockets while Pincher took out another note like the one he left me. I had no money on my person to buy back my TARDIS remote, so I was going to have to be sly. I pocketed the sonic screwdriver and called out, "Hello there!"
The two men looked up. Pincher clearly recognized me. "Well, I see you're up and about. I do apologize about Bumper's knocks, he's a street boy, still learning to hold back."
"Oh yes, perfectly understandable. I must say, as alley assaults go you Thieves' Guild men are very professional about it, jolly good show and all." I didn't allow any edge to come to my smile. "Is my locket okay?"
"Oh, of course. Come to get your coverage for the year?"
"If only," I sighed. "Unfortunately I'd already had a run in with some other thieves. Unlicensed ones, very nasty. Had a Slabbed up troll who wanted to smash my head in."
Pincher shook his head. "I know the ones you're talking about, sir. The Westerly Gang. I do so apologize about that, sir, we try to keep the unlicensed crime down but some always slip through the cracks."
"Things happen, can't be helped. It'll be a short bit before I can get you any compensation for the locket or the protection license, but I'd like to see my locket. Sentimental bit, you understand."
Pincher gave me a look of some healthy suspicion. "Aye, you wouldn't be looking to run off with it, would you? You look like a clever gent."
"Oh, Gods forbid I run with it, sir," I answered truthfully. "How about you have Bumper stand behind me? He can whack me on the head of I try to run past him with it. He gives a good thumping, that boy."
Pincher nodded and gestured to Bumper. The large man nodded and walked past us to stand guard behind me. Pincher took a knife out and held it in his right hand as he presented the TARDIS remote with his left. "Here you go, gent. You'll see that there's no damage whatsoever to it. And I can be generous in giving you a week to come up with a few dollars toward your protection plan before I turn it in."
I held a hand out and he let me have it for a moment, although he kept himself ready for trouble; this was Ankh-Morpork after all, even if he was a very nice thief. It made me feel a tad guilty for what I was going to do.
"Oh yes. Very good shape. You're to be commended, Mister Pincher, and I'll make sure you're duly compensated." I took in a breath. "Now let me see if it works."
As Pincher said that, I permitted myself a sad smile. "Sorry, city to save and all that." I'm pretty sure he heard me as the TARDIS materialized around us.
Charity looked on in shock at the control room. "Is that... more of that magic? You teleported us somewhere?"
"No, this is my TARDIS," I answered as I went for the controls. "Dimensionally transcendental field. That means it's bigger on the inside." There was thumping at the locked door. I brought the TARDIS about fifteen feet into the air above where we were and stopped it. From the controls I went to my storage bin near the door and rummaged through it. "Okay, I know you're in here, I know," I muttered as I went through little souvenirs. "Ah, there we go." I held up a bag and opened it, revealing gold ingots.
"Gold?" Charity looked at me curiously. "How much gold do you have?"
"As much as I need," I answered. I threw open the door and looked down at the bewildered Pincher and angry Bumper. "Sorry for that sir, but to prove I'm a man of my word, here's some gold!" I dropped the bag down. Unfortunately I misread the downward trajectory and the gold hit poor Bumper in the head. "Oops... sorry about that! That should be about six pounds of gold ingots, Mister Pincher, I'm sure that'll cover my protection license for the year. Keep the change sir and may you have a pleasant day!"
By that point, Pincher had retrieved the gold and was looking at me with surprise. He gave a wave to me and answered, "Sure there, gent! You gave me a scare there, though!"
"Sorry for that!"
After I closed the door I faced Charity again. "As much as you need? How...?"
"There are worlds outside of the Disc, you see. Many with high technology. And some have matter-replication technology, they can make gold out of thin air... well, more like out of cheap material stock re-organized at the atomic level. It's very complicated." With the TARDIS at the altitude of three hundred feet I began a wide-range scan. "Looks like the disturbance isn't far from the University. Hold on, I'm going to shift us over there."
The TARDIS shook a little as I settled it over near the University. "Quantum instability around the university, oi, never fun," I muttered while flipping switches. "But I've got us settled."
"So what do I need to do now?", she asked.
"Stay with me, be ready to help if I ask for it, that sort of thing." I went toward the door.
We opened it and emerged into an alley. I drew out the sonic screwdriver again to begin scanning. As I moved it around to get a fix, I spied a lone figure sitting at the side of the alleyway. He rose up and glared at me, and it wasn't a pretty sight, since he only had one eye to do the glaring. Someone had cut his face up badly. A knife appeared in his hand.
As I reached for my sonic disruptor, Charity saw him. "That's ol' Andy Shank."
"The football hooligan?", I asked. I extended my arm and...
...took a whiff of corruption.
Yes, you will be mine. And we will burn the witches, they will all burn!
In the moment of surprise at hearing the Cunning Man, the possessed Andy lunged at me with the knife. I shifted out of the way, but with the ghost driving his body the scarred hooligan was a lot faster than I imagined. His free hand grabbed my wrist and twisted until the pain caused me to drop the disruptor. I was forced around and pushed against the wall.
You will be mine!
The stench grew suffocating in my head. I could feel the Cunning Man starting to hammer his way in and, with Andy's body under his control, I couldn't get the leverage to wrench away.
I see all the worlds beyond this! I see names... Korra, Molly, Madoka, Homura... and they are all witches! The witches will burn! I will see that they will all burn!
I was screaming at this point, creating a shell around my mind to keep the ghost out as much as I could. His very touch felt like hot poison in my brain, an ice pick of corruption trying to slam through my skull.
There was a burst of energy from behind me that knocked Andy's body away. Charity took my arm with one hand, the other gripping the disruptor. That was the second time she'd saved me with it.
At that point I tried to move. My body resisted. The shock of the attempted possession had left me paralyzed for the moment. A clearly fatal moment as the Cunning Man stood Andy up from the ground and came at us again. The girl will burn!
The ground abruptly opened up beneath us. We fell into darkness, save for a single green light hovering to the side. "Come!", a voice hissed. "We have to get to the safety of the Unreal Estates, it'll be hard for him to find us there!"
My legs were finally working beneath me, so I was able to get to my feet and follow the green light. I was running in something and given we were underground I didn't want to know what. The dark tunnels stretched on, part of the tremendous underground world of Ankh-Morpork, a city that was literally built on top of itself and had been for centuries.
We had gone far enough to be led into a door, within which was a living space that was not too large, but cozy. A single figure stood before us, in full coverings and a helmet. As the figure removed those garments my eyes scanned the room. This confirmed for me that I had found whom I was looking for.
A woman with whitening hair looked at me, her face still showing some youth of the mind despite the wrinkles on her face. "Well, Doctor, you seem to stay in trouble."
"Trouble has a way of following me. A drawback to being a Time Lord, I'm afraid," I answered. I looked to the woman's staff, which had a noticeable lack of a knob on the end.
"Well, now that you're back..." She looked at me and her mouth hung open. "Oh dear."
"Yes?" I had a sudden realization of just what was going on.
"You look so... that suit..." She put a hand to her mouth. "I can't believe it. This is..."
"...the first time I've met you, yes," I replied. "But clearly not the first for you. The joy of timestreams."
"Yes," she agreed. The woman looked at Charity. "Hello young lady. She's awfully young to be one of your Companions."
"We just met today," I explained. "This is Charity."
"And who's she?", Charity asked. "And what does she mean about timestreams and meeting you and all of that? I thought you said you were new to the city?"
"I am. But some time in the past I wasn't," I answered. "It's... it's hard to explain my dear. Still, to finish the introductions, Charity..." I looked to our rescuer and held a hand out. "This is Eskarina Smith, the only female wizard in the history of the Disc and a capable time traveler."
"Pleased to meet you, young Charity," Eskarina said, curtseying a little and getting one in return. "My, you are an interesting child. Quite a... unique aura." Eskarina looked to me. "And since he probably hasn't fully introduced himself... this is the Doctor, a Time Lord of Gallifrey, who travels through the six dimensions of space-time in his TARDIS seeing the sights and, on occasion, tipping the balance of events so that history doesn't turn out quite so horrible." Esk allowed herself an appreciative chuckle. "Sadly, we can't have a very nice conversation because, as the Doctor will later say to me from his own perspective, that would be spoilers."
Charity gave me a bewildered look. "You... travel time?"
"And space. Six dimensions," I admitted.
"So... you could go back and find my mum?"
Esk and I exchanged looks. "I... can see about it, yes," I conceded. "I can't promise you anything more than meeting her and seeing what she's like, though. Anything more and I interfere with the timeline. I could cause something very nasty. Bat things eating people, that sort of thing."
"Reality has many ways of reacting to something causing a paradox. That's one of the more unpleasant varieties." Eskarina reached over and took a sip of what looked like tea. "Would you like some? I promise I kept down the rancid yak butter. Sweeper's taste in tea is one of his less endearing qualities."
"Of course you'd know Lu-Tze," I said. "And I suspect I will."
"Spoilers," Esk said, giving me a wink.
I drew in a sigh. "This is why it's such an advantage to not time travel, Charity," I said to my new friend. "No need to worry about timestreams not matching up."
"I wish we could chat more, but aside from a quick round of tea I'm afraid we're running out of time." Esk waved a hand in the air. Realizing what she was doing, I took out the sonic and set it to scan. Both of our methods showed, I presumed, the same result. "You can see it? The tear is getting bigger."
"I've got equipment aboard the TARDIS to deal with these things."
"I know. But this is different. Look at the third-dimensional elements."
I did so. And I let my jaw drop. "They're... moving... it shouldn't work that way."
"But it is. I fear something may have already slipped through from the Dungeon Dimensions." Esk picked her staff up. "And I think I know who it's bonded to."
She looked into my eyes and I let out a breath, and then a groan. Of course. With all that rotten luck, why wouldn't it turn out that way?
"Rincewind," I said. "It's linked to Rincewind."
"It might be how he was shifted to one of the Earths in the first place," Esk agreed.
"And when I brought him back, it triggered the rift to start forming. Oi, that's... rather aggravating."
"Yes." Esk looked to me and smiled. "So, Doctor. Shall we go save the world?"
I put my sonic in my pocket. "Yes, I think we shall."
"Just like old times, then. For me, anyway."
As we left, I couldn't help but wonder just what we'd end up doing in my future. But it wasn't something I could dwell upon. World to save first and all that.
Esk had a direct path taking her to the University from her underground sanctuary. Charity and I followed her closely, my hand holding Charity's to make sure she didn't stray. "I thought women couldn't be wizards?", she asked.
"There were some special circumstances," Esk answered from ahead of us. "But it was mostly impatience."
I smirked. "In this case I think it's safe to say haste didn't make waste." I couldn't see, but I got the impression she grinned.
We finally emerged from the underground in an old abandoned building at the fringe of the Unreal Estates. This let us into the environs of the Unseen University, although we still had to navigate the city streets. There was a growing crowd outside of it, held back by... yes, the Watch. Specifically...
"Hello Sergeant," Charity said amiably.
I had already guessed who it was given the massive crossbow in his arms and the fact he was a troll. Sergeant Detritus looked at Charity and nodded. "Hey dere, Charity. You doin' good?"
"I'm making my way, counting the years until I can take the King's Shilling," she answered. "This is my friend, the Doctor. And Eskarina Smith, she's a wizard."
Detritus looked over me and then Esk. It wasn't so warm yet that his troll brain was being unduly effected, although he needed truly cold temperatures to exercise his full intelligence. "Thought ladies couldn't be wizards," he finally said. "Dat's a good staff. But where's da knob?"
"It ruined the balance of the whole thing," Esk answered. "Sergeant, I need to get into the University. Something dreadful is going on."
"I know dat. Mister Vimes sent me down, said 'Keep people out of de University. De wizards are up to bloody nonsense again', he says."
"It's rather more nasty than that," I said. "There's a temporal tear walking around in there, and we need to stop it."
"Ah. Dat sounds bad." He looked from me to Esk and back to me. I could almost see the gears in his brain turning. "Lady's a wizard, she says she goin' in I won't stop dat."
"Thank you, Sergeant."
He gave us room to maneuver around him. When we entered the University grounds, we found student wizards were fleeing the main building. Esk held out her staff to get one's attention. "What's going on?"
"It's all gone crazy! Rincewind's... he's... he's fighting the senior wizards!"
Esk and I exchanged glances. "That does not sound good," I remarked.
"Something's taken him," she said. "Something did come through."
We went through the student wizards and to the building. A couple of the bledlows got in our way. "No civ..." They saw Esk and paled. "Oh, Miss Smith."
"Omory, Nobbs," she said simply. "They're with me."
The readings led us to the Great Hall of the University. Debris was present and there was a great deal of shouting and cursing inside. We stepped over one fallen wizard who was definitely on the portly side. "The Chair of Indefinite Studies," Esk said.
"They're not exactly built for fighting," Charity noted.
"Wizards don't fight." Esk kept her staff up. "At least not like you're thinking."
A few of the senior wizards were still on their feet, in particular one particulalry noticable fellow with a non-standard pointy hat and a voice that made the Hall vibrate. "Whoever you are, you will depart my wizard's body at once!" Archchancellor Ridcully held a hand out and absorbed a blast of lighting with it. "He may be a cowardly, useless little scamp, but he's still a faculty member of my university and I won't stand for this!"
"I don't think that's going to work, sir!", a second, younger voice called out. I caught a glimpse of glasses. It was undoubtedly Ponder Stibbons.
"Archchancellor!" Esk got to him first. Beyond us, Rincewind was turning away again and gesturing toward the top of the Hall.
Ridcully turned and faced us. "Ah, Miss Smith. Good to have you. Do you know anything about this? And who is this chap?"
"This is the Doctor. He is a friend of mine..."
I was raising my sonic as she gave a quick explanation. I focused instead on the scanning. There was something about the energy field around Rincewind that puzzled me, although it was still clear that he was the source of the rift. "The temporal tear is stabilizing. I'd say something wants to come through."
"Yes." Rincewind's voice was echoed by the entity inside. "My people have waited so long for a new home. We will not be denied by you again, Doctor."
Esk turned her head. "Do you know them?"
"Not yet, apparently," I murmured. I had, indeed, no recollection of stopping something from beyond normal space from coming into real space.
And then the thought occurred to me. Namely, that I wasn't the one who thwarted them.
"Who are you?", I asked. "I'm afraid that I thwart so many invasions these days that I can't remember them all."
Rincewind looked at me with curiosity. "You are not him. You are not the Doctor."
"Well, I'm not the only one," I retorted. "And you are..."
And like that, the answer came to me.
"The Gelth," I finished.
"And what are these Gelth things, and what do they want with my university?", Ridcully demanded.
"They lost their bodies in the Great Time War between the Time Lords and Daleks," I answered. "They were reduced to gaseous form. But I'm not... oh." I quickly filled that gap. "They had to retreat back through the Cardiff Rift. An explosion caused some quantum instabilities, nothing too major, but it shifted them deeper into the interdimensional spaces. And there... they changed."
"There are things there. Horrible things," the Gelth inside Rincewind said. "But we are free. And we do not need your bodies to be dead to hold you. This world will be our's."
"No, it won't," I responded. "You can't just take any world you please."
"You are too late, false-Doctor. We're already here."
My sonic whirred as the temporal energies spiked. The air above Rincewind split open into the form of a rift, one that blew open the rift and revealed the sky above, growing dark with crackling energies.
And not just any rift.
"A Crack," I muttered.
"A Crack in the Universe?", Esk asked. "Another one? The last time we..." She stopped at that point.
"Well, it's nice to know I'll run into more," I deadpanned. "Although given their six-dimensional nature, it could be one I've already seen."
"I suggest you focus on this one," Ponder was quick to point out.
Wispy forms of energy began pouring out. Esk and Ridcully brought their staves up and created a protective field just in time, keeping the wisps off of us. They began flying around and finding the bodies of the fallen head wizards. Others went beyond.
The Chair of Indefinite Studies rose behind us, a vacant look in this face. "This body... resists."
"Depart my faculty this instant!," Ridcully shouted, his voice loud enough to rattle ear drums. He pointed his staff and cast an energy bolt that smacked the body.
I saw more forms coming out. All of Ankh-Morpork was going to get possessed if we didn't hurry. "Archchancellor! Esk! We need to get outside the University and bring up a containment field of some kind! They'll take over the whole city if we don't hurry!"
"We have wards in place around the University," Stibbons suggested. "It'll only take me a few moments to bring them up."
I looked at Ridcully. "You actually planned for something bad to happen in the University?"
"Oh, that's not it at all," he answered. "They're actually made to keep other things out. Mister Stibbons and I shall have to tinker with them."
"Come along, gentlemen!" Esk shouted. The field around us was mostly from her magic. Concentration had locked her face into a single expression. "I could use some help, Doctor!"
I pulled out the sonic disruptor and quickly keyed it to take in the data from my sonic. I raised it and activated it, creating a field effect that reinforced Esk's magic-fueled protective field. The others backed out of the Great Hall behind us.
"They're coming!", Charity shouted when we left the Hall. Around us, various figures - bledlows, staff, some student wizards - were suddenly looking at us with stone faces and advancing. They had been taken by the Gelth.
I took out the sonic and handed my disruptor to Charity. "Same setting, clear us a path!"
She nodded enthusiastically and went to work. Stibbons, being more the thinker and writer, was contributing warning calls, and Ridcully had taken to what I supposed was a kind of force magic that repelled people from us while we retreated. Once we were at the gates Stibbons brought his hand up to a sigil etched into the stone, by which they had placed a kind of face. "Hex, I'm altering the protective field to focus inward. Access your emergency field until we sort this out."
"Processing," a voice said from the face mask.
I turned my head and added, "And while you're at it, Hex, calculate the exact range of quantum instability from that crack, we'll need that to seal it."
"Results will be too complex for basic speech..."
Since I wasn't needed anymore for the field against the Gelth, I turned my sonic onto Hex's receiver. It amused me that it could work with a computer that had, at its core, a bunch of ants with bees and honeycomb for storage media, but computers are computers, and a sonic screwdriver is a sonic screwdriver. I established a data link rather easily. Stibbons watched me use it and glance at the display. "Is that some sort of magic wand?", he asked, almost suspicious with his tone. "Because..."
"It's not magic, Mister Stibbons. Well... not magic as you know it, just a whole lot of exotic energy manipulation and..." I saw his expression and sighed. "And quantum. Let's just stop at quantum, we don't have the time for more. Anyway, there we go, full readings. How's that field coming along?"
An entire group of Gelth surged overhead and into the gathering crowd at the gate. They began entering an assortment of bodies, which lurched our way.
"Almost there," Ridcully insisted. "Blasted wards. Stibbons, I told you that the sigils were out of place!"
"Sorry, Archchancellor, but the field wasn't met to face inward."
Detritus brought his crossbow up toward the oncominng Gelth. I waved at him. "No, Sergeant! They're possessed! The Gelth will just find new bodies!" It was regrettable that he didn't have a stun setting on the Piecemaker. As the name implies, it's meant for turning things into smaller things.
Come to think of it... there really aren't any "stun settings" with trolls period.
"Dat not good, can't wop 'em on da hed eider. Dat'd be police brutality so long as dey's not trolls."
Charity was on the job with the sonic disruptor, throwing the affected, and some innocent bystanders, back with a broad blast. "I've got the hang of this, Doctor, I can hold this."
"By Io, Stibbons, did you really have to put that extra key..."
"Yes, sir, otherwise there could be accidental activations."
Esk had extended her field to protect Detritus and a couple of other Watchmen who had arrived, requiring me to give it a little reinforcement. But it was faltering, and Esk was clearly running out of strength. "We're almost there," I assured her.
There was a sparking in the air. It fizzled.
"Stibbons! The blasted field's not activating!"
"I'm not sure what's wrong, sir, I know all of the sigils are..."
Exasperated, Ridcully smacked the sigil beside us with his staff. It began to glow with octarine light. The eighth color - the Color of Magic, native only to the Disc and its quantum variability field - flew along the walls girding the University property, lighting up further sigils. Octarine energy flowed skyward and inward until it met at the top of the Tower of Art, creating a very tall dome in the middle of Ankh-Morpork.
The Gelth began to slam into it. They came out the other end. We were suddenly being rained on with weasels, parrots, and a couple of marsupials. A kangeroo landed in a newly-opened space in the crowd and bounced away.
"It's not supposed to do that, is it?", I asked Ridcully.
"Well, sir, magic is magic," he answered. "Best we can do in a hurry. Haste doesn't make for good, orderly magic. And at least they're whole. Doesn't always happen with the wild magic."
I checked on Charity. The possessed men were down. And the sonic disruptor's effects would make sure the Gelth inside stayed down too.
Esk leaned heavily on her staff and released the field. "I keep forgetting how old I am," she mumbled. "It's a good thing you're so young, otherwise the teasing would be unbearable."
I let myself smile at that. "Ah, well, I shall make up for it later, if you prefer. Now..."
The crowd parted before us. And for good reason, given the phalanx of armed Watchmen moving through. At their lead was a stern, middle-aged man with a scar on ihs face and a look of solid authority. I knew immediately who I was dealing with and nodded. "Commander Vimes, good afternoon."
Sir Samuel Vimes, Mister Vimes to his friends, and His Grace the Duke of Ankh to people who liked to annoy him, looked me up and down with a stern eye. "And who are you?", he demanded.
"He's with us, Commander Vimes," Ridcully replied.
"Oh really? Where's his pointy hat?"
"I have a fez," I said. "I'm just not wearing it at the moment, Commander."
"He said he was a Doctor, sir," Detritus spoke. "I don't know what he's Doctrin' in, though."
Behind us the Crack was glowing brighter and beginning to lengthen. "It's growing," I remarked. "And if it grows enough it's going to take out that field. Frankly, it might destroy the whole city."
"Wouldn't that ruin those Gelth fellows' plans?"
"I don't think they're controlling the Crack, Archchancellor," I replied. "Not entirely. They're simply exploiting it."
"And just what in the Gods' name are the Gelth?", Vimes demanded.
"A race from another cosmos that lost their bodies, Commander. And now they want your's. All of your bodies, that is." I watched the Gelth gather inside the field. They were possessing those who were still inside the University.
Rincewind's figure stepped up to the open gate and stopped at the octarine field. "You will not stop us this way," he remarked.
"There has to be another way," I replied. "Automaton bodies that need intelligence, something like that. I can find you empty droid bodies or get assistance from the Geth, you don't have to take these people."
There was a false grin on Rincewind's face. "Could you truly make something like that for all of us?"
"In time, but..."
"That is not good enough. We have waited for too long. We will not let the Time Lords dictate our fates again! Here we will be safe, and here we will stay!"
I looked up and saw the Crack grow more. It would be splitting the octarine field soon. I had the tools to seal it from the main spatial dimensions, but the octarine field was in the way. And if it went down, the Gelth would go around possessing everyone. I needed another solution.
"Now see here, this is entirely...!"
Leaving Ridcully and Vimes to growl and fuss at the Gelth, I leaned over to my future compatriot. "Esk, a step back please."
She followed me to what I hoped was out of earshot, or at least out of earshot when considering the voice of Mustrum Ridcully. "You have a plan," Esk said, smiling weakly. "You've got a good one too. You've always got that twinkle in your eye when..."
"It's something of one, anyway," I answered. "The Gelth have been altered by prolonged exposure to the energies of the lower subspatial dimensions. Coming through the Crack has given them a bond with it. That means there's some way we can draw them back in."
"Unfortunately the Crack is sending energy out, if it was pulling energy in I could see..." Esk's eyes widened. "Of course. You're going to introduce a flow inversion in it, aren't you?"
"Exactly. We prod the Crack to shift its energy flow. It won't last long before the natural energy flows overpower the inversion, but it should last long enough to suck the Gelth right back in."
"Oh, you and your brilliant plans." Esk's eyes twinkled. "But how are we going to cause an inversion? We can't get to it from all of those Gelth in the way."
"That's the fun part," I replied. I reached into my pocket and brought out my TARDIS remote. The eyes of the crowds, and of the Watch, turned as the TARDIS materialized. I went to the door. "Of course, it'd be useful if Jan and Cami weren't in Pseudopolis Yard. I need to..."
Esk, as tired as she looked, went straight past my control console and to the stairs leading down. I followed her to the underside of the control room where I kept my equipment. By the time my feet left the final step she was already going through the equipment I used for Crack-sealing. "Here!" She thrust them in my arms.
"I say, it's bigger on the inside!", Ridcully shouted from the door.
"It's a pocket dimension, sir," Stibbons said. "A rather complete one."
"I hate magic," Vimes added. "So he's one of your's?"
"No, I don't think so," Stibbons replied. "I've never seen him before."
By this point Esk had pulled out a few other pieces. "Ah, here we go." She held up one of the items. "A quantum flow regulator, and a temporal flux generator. Should create a quantum pulse field that would instigate the inversion, right?"
"Um, yes." I put the other items down, brought out my sonic, and got to work with the necessary modifications.
"How are you going to..."
Vimes was speaking again. "If he's not one of your's, and he certainly doesn't sound like a bloody Foureckser, and I know that Brazeneck hasn't graduated anyone yet due to that incident with the giant chicken, then he's a fake, right?"
"Does that mean I'm going to have to deal with you nailing him to the Brass Bridge?"
Much to my chagrin, Ridcully wasn't quick to answer. Stibbons provided one. "Well, sir, if he saves the Disc from that rift, that clearly counts as a service of benefit to wizardry and mankind. I'm sure the University Council would see fit to bestow a degree of some sort on such a man, should the Archchancellor be willing." That was unsurprising, since Stibbons was half the Council by himself.
"Oh, yes, yes, definitely."
"Just so long as it's not like the last time you did it. Even our Igor couldn't put the man back together."
"I really didn't need to hear that!", I bellowed.
Esk smirked. "As I was saying..."
"We're not going to enter that field, of course," I said. "Can't, not with the Gelth, and the TARDIS might protect them from the inversion flow if they got inside. No, I have a different idea..." I looked up and shouted, "Commander Vimes! I could use your help!"
Vimes got to the stairs and asked, "Oh really?"
"Please retrieve those items..." I pointed to the two devices that I had long used to seal Cracks. "...and take them to the door. They will be essential. And when you get back up there, please ask Sergeant Detritus to unload that crossbow of his. I'm going to have some new ammunition for him."
Esk looked at me with surprise. "My Gods... but he's a troll and in this temperature, I doubt he can do the calculations to aim right, and the device will have to strike the Crack exactly!"
"I know." I finished what I was doing and picked up the new compound device. "Thankfully, it's easy to introduce complex mathematics to a troll. And all I need is..."
We retrieved that last item and returned to the main floor. I saw that the Crack was within feet of the octarine field. It was already starting to spark and waver. "We've only got a couple of minutes. Sergeant!" I emerged from the TARDIS and motioned to Detritus. "I'm not that tall, Sergeant, can you stoop over a bit? I need to see that clockwork helmet of your's."
"Don't want you touchin' dis helmet," Detritus protested. "It a gift from a good friend."
"I know. But this is to save the Disc, Sergeant. I won't hurt it. In fact, I'll make it work better than your friend ever imagined it could."
Detritus looked to Vimes, who nodded slowly. He got to a knee and lowered his head enough that I was able to attach a device to the input vent for his helmet. I hit a button. Frost clearly formed in the air around it.
In Detritus' eyes I could almost see thoughts crystallizing. The device was a modified anti-fire tool I'd found, creating a strong thermal dampening field that lowered temperatures to resist flammability. Now the cold field it was producing was spreading to cover Detritus' head, and by doing so it lowered the temperature of his brain. The impure silicon there would definitely become more conductive.
"I see what you need now, Doctor," Detritus said, his speech pattern becoming more... refined, I guess you could say. "You need me to fire this device into the center of the crack in the air?"
"Yes," I replied.
"I see. Give me a moment." Detritus fixed the flow inverter into Piecemaker's firing string. He brought it up as I raised my sonic and took about five seconds to aim.
"Detritus, please hurry," Vimes said, noticing as I did that the field was starting to shift more.
"It's going to fail any moment," Stibbons confirmed.
"This is a very complex calculation, Commander. I am sorry," Detritus replied. "Wait a moment... there."
He pulled the trigger. The moment the inverter was in the air, I held a button and my sonic whirred to life.
The inverter passed through the field without issue - I had taken suitable precautions - and sailed for the center of the Crack.
The octarine field gave a final sputter of light and failed. The Gelth surged out and went for, well, everyone.
"Doctor!", Charity called out.
"Any moment," I answered, even as the first Gelth began to flow into the Crowd. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Vimes spasm - good luck to that Gelth, given Vimes' record when it came to possessions of his body - and Charity cry out as one slammed into her.
There was a sudden burst of light from the Crack. Screams echoed from both sides of the Gate. "No!", the Gelth inside Rincewind screamed. "We won't go back! Please, Doctor, don't make us...!"
"I'm sorry," I answered. "You should have accepted my offer."
There was a laugh. "It doesn't matter! It's all going to fall! In this place we might have been safe, but it's all falling! The breaks are growing! And you... you'll never stop it! It's all going to fall and you'll never stop waaaagghhhhohmygodswhatwasthat?!" Rincewind fell onto his knees and panted, looking at everything with, well, even more terror than was usual for Rincewind. The Gelth - now more energy than gas - was sucked out of him by the power of the Crack.
Other Gelth forms suffered the same, coming out of every body still inside the University and many outside of it. The blue-ish white forms flailed and twisted in mid-air, but it did them no good. The inversion had turned the Crack into an energy vacuum, and they were so tied to it that their energy was feeling the greatest reaction.
I watched every last Gelth form get sucked into the Crack and turned to the others. "Commander Vimes, Archchancellor Ridcully, Mister Stibbons, please come with me!" I looked to Charity. "You too, young lady."
Neither man was well-disposed to taking orders. But neither were they fools; I was clearly the expert here, and my authority rested entirely on the fact it was not authority, simply a proven expert asking two authority figures and men of great respect and admiration to assist me in my duties, which they graciously granted.
I led them into the TARDIS and handed Vimes and Ridcully the two tools for Crack-sealing. I would have preferred observing myself, but I was going to be too busy piloting the TARDIS and directing Charity and Stibbons to help. "Remember gentlemen, do not let your beams cross each other's."
"Aye, no crossing streams," Ridcully declared. "It always makes a mess."
I gave a quick nod, ignoring the innuendo. I saw Vimes was eyeing the quantum field manipulation emitter warily. "I'm afraid you can't just arrest a Crack, Commander Vimes. But this will do the trick."
"You'd be surprised at what I can arrest," Vimes muttered. He didn't know that I couldn't, I was well aware that Sam Vimes could and would arrest anything that gave him reason to.
"And make sure to secure yourselves so you don't get pulled out." Even as I gave that warning, remembering what happened to DiNozzo the last time, I rushed to the controls. "Esk, I need you on the Vortex Regulator," I said to her upon entering.
"Of course you do," she replied, taking up position beside it.
"MIster Stibbons, watch this... and this... if this turns yellow..." I gave him directions and then Charity, who was thankfully tall enouh to reach the necessary controls. I felt thankful the Crack was so close to the ground; I didn't have a full group of pilots available like I did last time I did this in mid-air. I scrambled between two stations as I brought the TARDIS into the air and closer to the Crack.
Ridcully and Vimes were good shots, and that was why I picked them. Granted, Ridcully's girth made for a tighter fit than I'd had with DiNozzo, but Vimes had just enough room to use the device I'd given him. The twin beams of light converged on the growing Crack. What seemed like a minute passed before I saw Esk begin to twist the regulator to close entirely. I watched from the controls as Ridcully and Vimes stepped back, just in time to avoid the worst of the burst of air that came from the Crack shifting out of our the three main spaital dimensions.
We landed the TARDIS at the Gate and stepped out into the dusk light of Ankh-Morpork (such as it was). Esk and I looked up toward the sky, my sonic and her staff raised. "It worked," she said.
"So the Crack is gone?", Stibbons asked.
"From the main three dimensions, yes," I replied. "But you may want to be careful if you start playing around in the lower dimensions. It's still there."
"I see. I shall definitely consider that with our studies."
Ridcully put a hand on my shoulder. "Good show, lad. Got a good head on your shoulders. Ever think about wearing a pointy hat?"
"Well, now that you mention it..." I stepped into the TARDIS and returned with my fez on. "Doesn't have a point, but it does have a tassel."
"Oh, that's one of those Klatchian things, yes? Never cared much for it, looks like you've got a thimble on your head."
"Respectfully, Archchancellor... Fezzes are cool."
"I shouldn't argue with him about it, Archchancellor," Esk warned. "He has a bizarre attachment to that bloody fez of his. The same thing with that boring blue suit."
"Oi, don't diss the threads."
That made Esk laugh. It was a hearty laugh, and one that I knew I'd probably hear quite a bit in the coming years. "It was good to see you again, Doctor. Surprising that this is our first meeting, but it feels right." She sighed. "Well, I suppose you'll be seeing me again, although I wonder if I'll see you."
"Oh, i'm sure I'll be back at times," I promised. "It goes in both directions."
'Yes." Esk let out a breath. "Well, I'm certainly not as young as I was. I think it's time I went and laid down. Before I go though..." She stepped up to me and lifted her head. When her hands touched my cheeks I let her pull my head down. I had thought she had intention of a kiss or something like that, but instead she put her mouth next to my ear. She whispered a name. When I brought my head back and showed confusion. "You won't understand the significance of that now," she sighed. "But you will one day. Goodbye Doctor." She nodded and, with a single word, faded from view.
"Always a strange one, Miss Smith," Ponder Stibbons remarked. "Aside from old Simon she hasn't done much to interact with anyone else."
I looked past Stibbons and saw Vimes walk up to me. Carrot was at one side and on the other was someone I didn't recognize, and who was clearly not in the Watch. His dark dress made me think he was an Assassin at first, but I realized it wasn't nearly black enough for them. "Yes, Commander?"
"Can I see that locket of your's? The one you held when you made your pocket whatever appear?"
At the limit of my hearing I heard a crossbow bolt being locked into place. I couldn't see if it was Vimes or the other gentleman, but I knew what it meant. And I knew there was no way I'd get the TARDIS in place before I took a crossbow bolt to something sensitive, like... well, any fleshy piece of me.
Warily I held out the locket. The man in the dark suit looked to Vimes and nodded.
Vimes rolled his eyes and drew in a breath. And then, without warning, he promptly snatched it from my hand.
At that moment, I looked past the dark-suited man and saw Mister Pincher and Bumper standing amongst the crowd. Pincher was looking at me with an expression that almost shouted apologies along the lines of "Sorry, not my doing, out of my hands".
"The Thieves' Guild is accusing you of unlicensed thievery, sir," Vimes said.
I gawked at him. "But it's my property, that's blood rid..."
"And I can't have you running off with that magic box of your's before we get this settled," Vimes continued. "If it were up to me I'd let you and your lady friends go and call it a night, but the Thieves' Guild's already gone to Lord Vetinari. He wants to see you. Right now."
"Am I under arrest, Commander?", I asked pointedly.
"Do you need to be?", Vimes asked. "Because I can arrange that if you want. Refusing the city's tyrant certainly falls under the Being Bloody Stupid Act."
For a moment I just stared at him. And then I yielded to the inevitable. "Off to the Patrician's Palace then, I suppose. Always wanted to see what the Oblong Office was like."
At the waiting room for the Oblong Office I was reunited with Janias and Camilla while Vimes went in to give his report to Vetinari. They looked well enough and stood in the company of two female Watch officers with Captain ranks on their uniforms. Given one's blonde hair and the other's boyishly-short dark hair and, yes, I saw the tipped points of fangs in her teeth, their identities were clear to me even before Camilla introduced them as Angua and Sally. I gave a little bow and introduced myself and Charity, who had opted to accompany me. "This is Charity, a well-spirited young lady who helped a doddering newcomer to the city she found unconscious in an alley."
"Thank you for helping him, Charity." Janias' smile was full of her usual mischief. "He usually needs it."
"He's going to need a lot of it if the Thieves' Guild have it in their heads he's an unlicensed thief," Charity pointed out.
I noticed Sally was looking at me with intense curiosity, the kind you usually didn't want from a vampire. Discworld vampires were, if I may be guilty of bad punning, entirely different animals from the Red Court Vampires I'd faced down in Harry Dresden's cosmos. The black ribbon she wore was a common sight on vampires in this day and age of the Disc, showing her status as a Black Ribboner; essentially a Vampire temperance movement that refuses to drink the blood of humans or other sentient species (save trolls, for obvious reasons there). "Doctor, did you know you have two hearts?", she asked, her accent slightly off with just a hint of what I'd know as a Slavic tone.
"Time Lord physiology," I answered.
"I see. Very useful, two hearts."
"And your friend isn't Human either," Angua added, looking to Janias.
"Yes, I've yet to find a way to change her scent, Captain, but the holobelt usually works." I noticed Angua's sharp look and kept a neutral expression. Undoubtedly she'd intended for me to think Sally had realized that fact about Janias.
The door to the office opened. Vetinari's personal security, Drumknott, stepped out. "His Lordship will see you and your friends now, Doctor."
Vimes was standing at one side of Vetinari's desk while on the other was a man in a bowler hat with a couple of very large men at his sides; presumably he was Mister Boggis, President of the Thieves' Guild. At the desk was the man I'd expected to see; Lord Havelock Vetinari. Ankh-Morpork operated on the "one man, one vote" system, namely, Havelock Vetinari was the man and he had the vote. He was about the closest thing you'd ever find to the idea of a benevolent despot (unless you were a mime), which I considered to come from the fact that he had mastered his ego and preferred the slight hand of control over the bludgeon of power. A man didn't need the rack and thumbscrews when he could call upon the power of committees and councils.
Vetinari was an imposing man, but it was not from physical strength; he was shorter than I was and on the thin side, with a pointed and wel-kept beard. He looked like the quintessential Prince of Machiavelli; indeed I suspect this man, if introduced to "The Prince", would consider it a beginner's primer.
"Ah, Doctor, welcome," he said amiably. "I am pleased to see you are well. By all accounts you have had a very busy day in our fair city." There was an edge to the word 'fair'; Vetinari was cynical enough to know just what his people were really like.
"It's been a hectic day, yes. There is something about Ankh-Morpork that lends itself to hustle and bustle."
"Indeed. Unfortunately, some of your activities have been of questionable legality, so I'm thankful to have the chance to go over them with you. To start with, I have a note that Mister Krist, the owner of a fine establishment of glassware, has accused your friends of destroying his merchandise?"
"His rope snapped, sir. And he was... agitated."
"The same with the woman who's child was nearly crushed by his merchandise? She was also of the outspoken opinion that your lady friend caused the incident."
"Her child was threatened, Your Lordship, I'm not surprised that she jumped to conclusions out of fear for her baby."
"Yes indeed." Vetinari folded his hands together. "And the accusation that your friend is a witch?"
"There seems to be something of a concern over witchese these days. It may have contributed."
"So it does seem." Vetinari clearly knew there was more to this. "Thankfully, Captain Carrot's statement has corroborated that Mister Krist's rope was weak, and I think it is safe to say your view is fairly accurate." He shuffled paper on his desk. "On another matter... someone set fire to a portion of the Ankh River under the Misbegot Bridge."
I shrugged. "Someone was careless with a match, I imagine."
"It has been known to happen, yes." Vetinari looked over the paper. "Unfortunately, the fire damaged several riverfront buildings, three boats, and there was a case of a rather unfortunate young man who is currently be treated for burns at the Free Hospital."
"My word, someone was trying to swim in the Ankh?" I gasped.
"I'm sure you're aware of how young males can do foolish things in the name of a bet. I trust the case will be a reminder of the risks involved."
We exchanged a look that said how much that reminder would be heeded in our estimations.
The glance also said a lot about this interview. I was being tested. And that, I suspected, was just one part of Vetinari's purpose.
"Finally, Doctor, Mister Boggis and his Guild have accused you of unlicensed thievery."
"So I was told." This, of course, was the most dangerous issue for me. "I am curious as to the charge."
"According to the statement of Mister Pincher, you seized this locket from him." Vetinari held up my TARDIS remote.
"Does Mister Pincher's report relay the facts, that the locket was mine and stolen by him and that I left him six pounds of gold to cover the requested protection fee?"
"He did indeed." Vetinari smiled thinly. "However, that does not change the fact that you took possession of it and evaded him before making the payment, which the Thieves Guild sees as a clear act of theft."
I looked to Boggis and his frowning bodyguards. "Indeed? So in Ankh-Morpork, a man does not have the right to reclaim his property?"
"You will understand if the Thieves Guild is rather opposed to such a thought, Doctor," Vetinari pointed out. "To them it's not a case of reclaiming property but rather a second act of theft, thieving from thieves so to speak. They take an understandably dim view of that, you see. And as they are a respectable organization that helps to keep this city's crime under control, I feel obligated to give their viewpoints due consideration."
Which, of course, was not the same as agreeing with their viewpoints. I had a feeling this was merely the biggest stick Vetinari planned to wield in whatever dealings he wished to have with me. "I see Mister Boggis' point. Perhaps he would accept compensation of a sort, something to uphold the principle he feels I have crossed? I understand that with the new golem standard for this city's currency gold has lost some value, but surely another, say, ten pounds of gold would be sufficient for this purpose? And a solemn promise to never do it again, of course."
Vetinari said nothing, but I could see Boggis was smiling widely. I returned to smile. Vetinari saw the expression and kept his own faint smile. "What do you have to say to the gentleman's proposal, Mister Boggis?"
"Perfectly reasonable," Boggis announced.
"Capital," Vetinari remarked, showing an appearance of being pleased.
"I'm glad I could do business with you, Mister Boggis. May I request that some of my... recompensatory bequest be used to further benefit Mister Pincher? He is, I must say, the most professional and altogether decent mugger I have ever been mugged by. He does the Thieves Guild great credit."
"Pincher's one of my best," Boggis boasted. "Good to see you have a good eye for talent, Doctor."
In other words, my request was denied, graciously. I nodded to show I understood him and offered my hand. "A pleasure to do business with you, Mister Boggis."
After I shook hands with the Thieves Guild's president and watched him depart, we were left alone with Vimes, Vetinari, and Drumknott. "I believe this takes care of everything, Your Lordship?"
"It does, for the most part," Vetinari conceded. He stood up and walked to the window. "Would you mind stepping up, sir?"
I did so, standing beside the window with him. I was quite certain he wasn't intending something like having me shot by an assassin; it wasn't his style, especially not with Vimes in the room. "I hear we have you to thank for our city not being taken over by... what were they, Sir Samuel?"
"Ghosts of some sort," Vimes replied.
"Yes, ghosts, I suppose. I shall have to ask the Archchancellor for more information on what precisely happened, but Commander Vimes has made it quite clear to me that you were instrumental in thwarting the destruction of our city." He gestured out the window. "And when you look out upon this metropolis you have saved, Doctor, what do you see?"
Well, truthfully I simply saw a thick fog growing in the streets and the customary gray of Ankh-Morpork. But I knew what the Patrician was getting at. "A machine, running more smoothly than it has in years," I answered. "Just as I know I am standing beside the engineer responsible for this happy circumstance."
"Indeed," Vetinari answered. "The city is a machine, and it is a very difficult machine to operate at times. For all of the simplicity of the human condition - and the similar conditions of the dwarves and trolls and other fair races we now number amongst our citizenry - putting a million of them together in a confined space turns simplicities into a complex machine that demands a great deal of attention to keep running. I have, over the years, prided myself on knowing when and where the machine needs fixing, so you will understand if my primary concern is always for the functioning of the machine."
"So you say," I answered. I had my own views of sentient nature, but I decided to allow Vetinari his monologue, knowing it was building up to something.
"And today, Doctor, you arrived in my city. And the machine shook. Not severely, I grant, but nevertheless... I look at you and I see a being who can, quite easily, shake my machine to its very heart."
Ah, that was it then. "Yet I have not done so. Nor will I."
"Oh?" Vetinari's eyebrow went up. "Are you telling me that you refrain from tinkering with such things? That in your many travels, to whichever places you go to, you never interfere with what you see?"
He had me there, of course. "I have acted before, yes, when the situation required," I conceded.
"And who, Doctor, judged whether your involvement was required?", Vetinari asked.
"Ultimately, I did," I admitted. "Usually because I saw something terrible happening."
"So you have no authority you are responsible toward. You are a rogue element."
"I suppose you could say I am a free agent."
Vetinari's smile took on an edge. "I believe I just did, Doctor." He walked beyond me to stand by Vimes. "In this city, Doctor, there is an authority, and that authority must act with caution toward 'free agents' such as yourself. And so I would make a request of you, Doctor."
With great wariness, I asked, "And that would be?"
Vetinari reached over and took my hand. When he pulled it back, my TARDIS remote and key were in my hand again.
"My request, Doctor, is that you finish what remains of your current business in this city and depart."
"And never come back, I imagine?"
"I would not say never. Simply not soon. And when you return, do make sure you remember our talk?" Vetinari gestured to the door. "Please, don't let me detain you any further."
We filed out of the Oblong Office, with guards escorting us to the Palace entrance. Janias frowned and looked back at the Palace. "And he can just kick us out like that?"
"Oh, he was asking nicely. We don't want to make him ask unkindly."
"Yes, he may have to detain us further then," Camilla remarked drolly.
Seeing Mister Boggis' men were waiting for us at the TARDIS, crossbows in their hands but not held in immediate threat, I sighed. "Yes, that is exactly it. Anyway, let's get Mister Boggis his gold and visit some individuals under a bridge, I owe them something too."
It was not just dusk but almost night when I materialized the TARDIS beside Pseudopolis Yard, for Charity's benefit. "I wish Lord Vetinari wasn't making you leave," she admitted to me. "I enjoyed meeting you, Doctor, and you wonderful friends."
"The pleasure was mine, Charity," I replied. "Take care of yourself."
"Of course. I'm gonna be a copper, after all," she insisted. "But... I didn't want to, but I wanted to ask..."
"You want to see your mother," I finished for her.
I looked to the girls. "Well, Lord Vetinari wants me to leave at this time, visiting about... oh, twelve years in the past shouldn't be hard. I shall have to take a scan of you first, Charity..."
After we took that scan, the TARDIS computers were able to calculate her age and give us a day. That alone wasn't going to be enough, as dozens, even hundreds of babies are born every day. Thankfully, Janias was able to give us a location to materialize in. We stepped out into an alleyway in one of Ankh-Morpork's seedier districts. There was a cry from an adjacent alley and we followed it.
There we saw a woman against the wall, screaming as she clearly gave birth. "Ah, here she comes, here she comes!", another woman, clearly a friend, called out. We watrched silently as the birth completed. I felt horrible watching this, knowing how poor these people were, and that with Charity with me I couldn't do anything to alleviate it without altering her timeline, and thus our encounter.
"A little girl, just like I tole you!", the midwife proclaimed. She showed the squealing baby to the other woman. She moved dirty brown locks out of her eyes and beheld her child. "D'ya have a name?"
"I... I..." The new mother's breath became erratic. "I'm not... Oh Gods, Lanie..."
"I'll go get help!" The woman, with the baby still in her arms.
"No..! My baby...!" The mother watched the woman run off with the child.
I felt tears in my eyes at this point. But Charity was weeping. "That's my mum. It's my poor mum."
Before I could stop her, Charity ran forward to her mother. "Mum! Mum!"
The new mother looked up at the child running toward her. Charity threw her arms around her late mother... who wasn't quite so late yet. The woman stared at her, bewildered. But I watched as the confusion shifted into certainty. "My baby," she sighed. "It's really you, isn't it? The gods have sent you back to me."
"Not a god." Charity looked back at me. "Something better."
I looked heavenward, worried that a lightning bolt would come crashing down. But nothing happened. Maybe they weren't watching up on Dunmanifestin. Or they were enjoying the show too much. I wasn't going to ask.
"My little Sarah," the woman said, her voice hoarse. "My baby..." She faded into unconsciousness.
I stepped up and used the sonic to check her body. "She has internal bleeding, it's... I'm sorry, but it's too late."
"Yeah," Charity sniffled. "I know."
I put a hand on her shoulder and guided her back toward the TARDIS. As we came to a corner I felt something at the corner of my mind. I twisted my head to look back to the dying woman. I perceived a shape beside her, one that I had to focus to truly see.
A black cowl and robe. And a certain farming implement. The Reaper Man had come to tend to his harvest.
"Let's go back to your proper time, Sarah," I said, moving the crying Little Match Girl along.
When we returned to the time we'd left, Charity was sobbing quietly at a corner of the TARDIS. Camilla walked over and took the younger girl into her arms. "There, I know how it feels. I know."
It occurred to me I'd never asked her about her parents. Given she was a human slave in the Sith Empire... I thought it best to not ask.
There was little light left when Charity finally made her way to the door. "Please come back. I... I won't tell anyone if you come and visit."
I smiled softly at her. "I suspect, young lady, that Lord Vetinari would discover it anyway. Still, perhaps I shall come and see the wizards some time, I had Professor Stibbons ready to beg me to help him with his exotic time-space projects."
"Good. Then I'll see you sometime soon?"
"Expect me when you see me, my dear." I reached into my pocket and brought out a small pouch. "You've still got a few years before Vimes will let you take the King's Shilling, Charity, but this should keep a roof over your head until then."
She opened the pouch and looked at it intently. "It's... more gold."
"Gold dollars. Not Ankh-Morpork dollars, certainly, but I'm betting you can find someone willing to buy the coins from you. If I were you, though, I would go straight to the Royal Bank in the morning and open an account with them. I'm sure Constable Visit or another Watchman will join you if they want an adult, and I suspect that the Chairman of the Bank, or rather his legal keeper, will be quick to give you a fair price for them. Not too much of one, but sufficient. Especially if you have a Watchman at your side." I winked.
I heard the warning in Janias' voice a moment before I saw him, or rather smelled him. That horrifying stench of corruption was like a razorblade to my smelling senses and I was getting fed up with it. I looked up and saw, down the alley, the dark figure of the Cunning Man approaching. "Excuse me," I said to Charity. I stepped back inside the TARDIS, pulled out a glass container of liquid I'd quickly prepared upon my return to the TARDIS, and stepped back out and up toward the approaching figure.
You will be mine! The witches will burn! They will all burn!
"No warnings this time!" I heaved the container. As I'd planned, it shattered right under the ghost's feet. "I already told you once and I'm not doing it again! BUGGER OFF!"
I brought my sonic up and activated it. It was a simple thermal pulse.
The liquid that had been inside the container erupted into flame. A flame that the Cunning Man was now in the middle of. He shrieked and flailed and cried out in rage before vanishing.
"Well, that takes care of him," I said.
"Is he gone?", Janias asked. "He couldn't be..."
"He never dies," I answered, even as the flames died behind me. "He can only be defeated for a time. And that wasn't nearly enough, oh no. He'll run off for a while and recover. Then he'll be back."
"You should let the wizards know," Charity said. "They can deal with him."
"I'm sure they do, but they're not quite the right tool for that job. Nor are we, my dears." I saw the look on my Companions' faces. "No, the Cunning Man has another nemesis. There's a very bright and quite powerful young witch out in the Chalk Hills who will deal with him in due time." I glanced at Charity. "And I didn't say that."
"My lips are sealed, sir," Charity promised.
"Good." I knelt down and exchanged a hug with her. "Take care of yourself, Charity. You're a very special girl."
"Thank you, sir."
She exchanged hugs with Jan and Cami and skipped down toward the other end of the alley.
"Well, it's time to go," I sighed. "We'll have to come back at a further point in the time stream to do some touring."
"Captain Carrot offered to take us to a few places when we got out," Camilla revealed.
"Unsurprising. Perhaps we'll all take him up on that."
The girls stepped into the TARDIS. As I went to, I felt something again, something I'd felt shortly before. I turned back from the TARDIS door.
"Doctor?", Cami called from within.
"I'll be right there," I replied. "Just one last thing."
Death was standing in the alleyway.
"So, checking up on Charity, are you?", I asked politely.
YES. I KEEP AN EYE ON HER WHEN THE DUTY PERMITS. Death set his scythe to the side. THANK YOU FOR YOUR KINDNESS TO HER.
"It's all part of what I do," I replied. "So..."
A thought occurred to me. If Death wasn't entirely limited to the Discworld, could he know...
I DO NOT KNOW YOUR TRUE NAME, he replied, pre-empting me. NOR DO I KNOW ANYTHING OF WHAT WAS DONE TO YOU.
"Oh? So you're just limited to the Disc?"
NO. THE EXPLANATION IS... COMPLEX. IT INVOLVES SIX DIMENSIONAL WIBBLY WOBBLY, YOU MIGHT SAY.
"Ah." I drew in a sigh. "I don't suppose you'd happen to have my..."
I DO. BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT I AM HERE FOR. He reached into his robes. I THOUGHT IT BEST FOR YOU TO SEE THIS YOURSELF.
I watched him pull out two objects. I could see immediately that they were lifetimers. And I didn't need a Time Lord brain to guess whom they belonged to.
Of course, the Aurabesh writing on them made that clear anyway.
I watched the sands flow from the top bulbs to the bottom, in perfect synch. "Is there any way for me to know how long that actually is?", I asked quietly.
NO. THERE IS... UNCERTAINTY.
"But it's... yes, I suppose it would still flow." I swallowed. "I see. Yes, thank you for showing me."
I CAN SEE THE DECISION WILL NOT BE AN EASY ONE FOR YOU. IT IS NOT EASY TO BE ALONE, DOCTOR. BUT THERE IS ALWAYS DUTY. YOU KNEW THIS WHEN YOU ASSUMED THE NAME.
"Yes," I replied. I knew my voice was hoarse from emotion. "I know."
I WILL BE GOING NOW. THERE IS AN ACCIDENT IN KRULL THAT MUST BE SEEN TO.
"Give your granddaughter my regards," I said. "I suspect she and I will meet some time. It's how the Disc works, after all."
I WILL DO SO. TAKE CARE, DOCTOR. I SHALL SEE YOU AGAIN SOMETIME.
"Yes, I imagine so."
I didn't look back to watch him disappear. I was starting to think of those lifetimers he showed me, and what they meant. I knew that sand would run out before anyone would know it... well, save Death himself of course, that is rather his job.
Janias and Camilla met me at the controls. "Well, that was a trip," Camilla remarked. "We got hauled off to jail and you had to run around this whole stinking city."
"Yes. It was a rather unique experience. I think some of Rincewind's luck rubbed off on me."
"What happened to that guy anyway?," Janias asked. "I've never seen anyone run so fast."
"I imagine he had to help with the cleanup at the University. Ridcully probably yelled at him a bit, but he'll be fine. It wasn't his fault. Rincewind tends to be fortune's chewtoy at times." I drew in a breath. "The bigger question is... the Gelth. They came through the Crack. They were from the Doctor's cosmos and they came through the Crack."
"It's... it's bad and it's good and I don't know." On a whim I tried to lock onto the Doctor's cosmos again. It didn't work. "I still can't go there myself. But there's a connection there. I know there's some kind of connection."
"We'll figure it out, just give it time, Doctor," Camilla said, trying to be reassuring.
I nodded at that, trying to get the image of their lifetimers out of my head. Death was doing us all a favor, I knew that. But to be reminded so starkly... "Well, time waits for no one, not even a Time Lord," I announced. "Let's go find somewhere nice to visit. What do you say?"
"You're the pilot of this thing," Janias reminded me with a smirk. "We're just your hapless Companions."
"Not hapless, my dear, never hapless," I pointed out as I reached for the lever. "Well, it was nice to see the Disc, we'll have to come back some time." I know I will be coming back some time, I thought.
As I pulled the lever back, I mulled over the name that Eskarina had whispered into my ear. It sounded so familiar, but my mind couldn't focus on it.
It would be a long time before I found out just what that name meant to me.