Watch . . .
This is space. It's sometimes called the final frontier.
(Except that of course you can't have a final frontier, because there'd be nothing for it to be a frontier to, but as frontiers go, it's pretty penultimate . . .)
And against the wash of stars a nebula hangs, vast and black, one red giant gleaming like the madness of gods . . .
And then the gleam is seen as the glint in a giant eye and it is eclipsed by the blink of an eyelid and the darkness moves a flipper and Great A'Tuin, star turtle, swims onward through the void.
On its back, four giant elephants. On their shoulders, rimmed with water, glittering under its tiny orbiting sunlet, spinning majestically around the mountains at its frozen Hub, lies the Discworld, world and mirror of worlds.
Reality is not digital, an on-off state, but analog. Something gradual. In other words, reality is a quality that things possess in the same way that they possess, say, weight. Some people are more real than others, for example. It has been estimated that there are only about five hundred real people on any given planet, which is why they keep unexpectedly running into one another all the time.
The Discworld is as unreal as it is possible to be while still being just real enough to exist.
And just real enough to be in real trouble.
About thirty miles Turnwise of Ankh-Morpork the surf boomed on the wind-blown, seagrass-waving, sand-dunecovered spit of land where the Circle Sea met the Rim Ocean.
The hill itself was visible for miles. It wasn't very high, but lay amongst the dunes like an upturned boat or a very unlucky whale, and was covered in scrub trees. No rain fell here, if it could possibly avoid it. Although the wind sculpted the dunes around it, the low summit of the hill remained in an everlasting, ringing calm.
Nothing but the sand had changed here in hundreds of years.
A crude but of driftwood had been built on the long curve of the beach, although describing it as 'built' was a slander on skilled crude but builders throughout the ages; if the sea had simply been left to pile the wood up it might have done a better job.
And, inside, an old man had just died.
'Oh,' he said. He opened his eyes and looked around the interior of the hut. He hadn't seen it very clearly for the past ten years.
Then he swung, if not his legs, then at least the memory of his legs off the pallet of sea-heather and stood up. Then he went outside, into the diamond-bright morning. He was interested to see that he was still wearing a ghostly image of his ceremonial robe - stained and frayed, but still recognizable as having originally been a dark red plush with gold frogging - even though he was dead. Either your clothes died when you did, he thought, or maybe you just mentally dressed yourself from force of habit.
Habit also led him to the pile of driftwood beside the hut. When. he tried to gather a few sticks, though, his hands passed through them.
It was then that he noticed a figure standing by the water's edge, looking out to sea. It was leaning on a scythe. The wind whipped at its black robes.
He started to hobble towards it, remembered he was dead, and began to stride. He hadn't stridden for decades, but it was amazing how it all came back to you.
Before he was halfway to the dark figure, it spoke to him.
DECCAN RIBOBE, it said.
LAST KEEPER OF THE DOOR.
'Well, I suppose so.'
YOU ARE OR YOU AREN'T, he said.
Deccan scratched his nose. Of course, he thought, you have to be able to touch yourself. Otherwise you'd fall to bits.
'Technic'ly, a Keeper has to be invested by the High Priestess,' he said. 'And there ain't been a High Priestess for thousands o' years. See, I just learned it all from old Tento, who lived here before me. He jus' said to me one day, “Deccan, it looks as though I'm dyin', so it's up to you now, 'cos if there's no-one left that remembers properly it'll all start happening again and you know what that means.” Well, fair enough. But that's not what you'd call a proper investmenting, I'd say.'
He looked up at the sandy hill.
'There was jus' me and him,' he said. 'And then jus' me, remembering Holy Wood. And now. . . ' He raised his hand to his mouth.
'Oo-er,' he said.
YES, said Death.
It would be wrong to say a look of panic passed across Deccan Ribobe's face, because at that moment it was several yards away and wearing a sort of fixed grin, as if it had seen the joke at last. But his spirit was definitely worried.
'See, the thing is,' it said hastily, 'no-one ever comes here, see, apart from the fishermen from the next bay, and they just leaves the fish and runs off on account of superstition and I couldn't sort of go off to find an apprentice or somethin' because of keepin' the fires alight and doin' the chantin' . . . '
' . . . It's a terrible responsibility, bein' the only one able to do your job . . . '
YES, said Death.
'Well, of course, I'm not telling you anything . . . '
' . . . I mean, I was hopin' someone'd get shipwrecked or somethin', or come treasure huntin', and I could explain it like old Tento explained it to me, teach 'em the chants, get it all sorted out before I died . . . '
'I s'pose there's no chance that I could sort of . . . '
'Thought not,' said Deccan despondently.
He looked at the waves crashing down on the shore.
'Used to be a big city down there, thousands of years ago,' he said. 'I mean, where the sea is. When it's stormy you can hear the ole temple bells ringin' under the sea.'
'I used to sit out here on windy nights, listenin'. Used to imagine all them dead people down there, ringin' the bells.'
AND NOW WE MUST GO.
'Ole Tento said there was somethin' under the hill there that could make people do things. Put strange fancies in their 'eads,' said Deccan, reluctantly following the stalking figure. 'I never had any strange fancies.'
BUT YOU WERE CHANTING, said Death. He snapped his fingers.
A horse ceased trying to graze the sparse dune grass and trotted up to Death. Deccan was surprised to see that it left hoofprints in the sand. He'd have expected sparks, or at least fused rock.
'Er,' he said, 'can you tell me, er . . . what happens now?'
Death told him.
'Thought so,' said Deccan glumly.
Up on the low hill the fire that had been burning all night collapsed in a shower of ash. A few embers still glowed, though. Soon they would go out.
They went out.
Nothing happened for a whole day. Then, in a little hollow on the edge of the brooding hill, a few grains of sand shifted and left a tiny hole.
Something emerged. Something invisible. Something joyful and selfish and marvellous. Something as intangible as an idea, which is exactly what it was. A wild idea.
It was old in a way not measurable by any calendar known to Man and what it had, right now, was memories and needs. It remembered life, in other times and other universes. It needed people.
It rose against the stars, changing shape, coiling like smoke.
There were lights on the horizon.
It liked lights.
It regarded them for a few seconds and then, like an invisible arrow, extended itself towards the city and sped away.
It liked action, too . . .
And several weeks went past.
There's a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork, greatest of Discworld cities.
At least, there's a saying that there's a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork.
And it's wrong. All roads lead away from Ankh-Morpork, but sometimes people just walk along them the wrong way.
Poets long ago gave up trying to describe the city. Now the more cunning ones try to excuse it. They say, well, maybe it is smelly, maybe it is overcrowded, maybe it is a bit like Hell would be if they shut the fires off and stabled a herd of incontinent cows there for a year, but you must admit that it is full of sheer, vibrant, dynamic life. And this is true, even though it is poets that are saying it. But people who aren't poets say, so what? Mattresses tend to be full of life too, and no-one writes odes to them. Citizens hate living there and, if they have to move away on business or adventure or, more usually, until some statute of limitations runs out, can't wait to get back so they can enjoy hating living there some more. They put stickers on the backs of their carts saying 'Ankh-Morpork - Loathe It or Leave It'. They call it The Big Wahooni, after the fruit.
Every so often a ruler of the city builds a wall around Ankh-Morpork, ostensibly to keep enemies out. But Ankh-Morpork doesn't fear enemies. In fact it welcomes enemies, provided they are enemies with money to spend. It has survived flood, fire, hordes, revolutions and dragons. Sometimes by accident, admittedly, but it has survived them. The cheerful and irrecoverably venal spirit of the city has been proof against anything . . .
The explosion removed the windows, the door and most of the chimney.
It was the sort of thing you expected in the Street of Alchemists. The neighbours preferred explosions, which were at least identifiable and soon over. They were better than the smells, which crept up on you.
Explosions were part of the scenery, such as was left.
And this one was pretty good, even by the standards of local connoisseurs. There was a deep red heart to the billowing black smoke which you didn't often see. The bits of semi-molten brickwork were more molten than usual. It was, they considered, quite impressive.
A minute or two after the explosion a figure lurched out of the ragged hole where the door had been. It had no hair, and what clothes it still had were on fire.
It staggered up to the small crowd that was admiring the devastation and by chance laid a sooty hand on a hot-meat-pie-and-sausage-in-a-bun salesman called Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler, who had an almost magical ability to turn up wherever a sale might be made.
'Looking,' it said, in a dreamy, stunned voice, 'f'r a word. Tip of my tongue.'
'Blister?' volunteered Throat.
He recovered his commercial senses. 'After an experience like that,' he added, proffering a pastry case full of so much reclaimed organic debris that it was very nearly sapient, 'what you need is to get a hot meat pie inside you-'
'Nonono. 'S not blister. 'S what you say when you've discovered something. You goes running out into the street shoutin',' said the smouldering figure urgently. 'S'pecial word,' it added, its brow creasing under the soot.
The crowd, reluctantly satisfied that there were going to be no more explosions, gathered around. This might be nearly as good.
'Yeah, that's right,' said an elderly man, filling his pipe. 'You runs out shouting “Fire! Fire!” ' He looked triumphant.
' 'S not that . . . '
'Or “Help!” or-'
'No, he's right,' said a woman with a basket of fish on her head. 'There's a special word. It's foreign.'
'Right, right,' said her neighbour. 'Special foreign word for people who've discovered something. It was invented by some foreign bugger in his bath-'
'Well,' said the pipe man, lighting it off the alchemist's smouldering hat, 'I for one don't see why people in this city need to go round shouting heathen lingo just 'cos they've had a bath. Anyway, look at him. He ain't had a bath. He needs a bath, yes, but he ain't had one. What's he want to go round shouting foreign lingo for? We've got perfectly satisfactory words for shoutin'.'
'Like what?' said Cut-me-own-Throat:
The pipe-smoker hesitated. 'Well,' he said, 'like . . . “I've discovered something” . . . or . . . “Hooray” . . . '