The Lecturer in Recent Runes was unusually upset. The other wizards, regarding the panting, owlish man at one end of the long dining room, took this in with curiosity. Ponder Stibbons--though by no means an island of tranquility in the circus that was Unseen University's day-to-day--typically did not, as a rule, scream.
Nor did he often fling open double doors in a manner that sent the candles beside them crashing to the ground.1 The contrast between the expected (fussy academic) and the present (shrieking horror in a Yes I Am A Rocket Wizard smock) momentarily shocked the collected faculty into silence. Archchancellor Ridicully spoke first, with all the eloquence and poise expected from a man of his position:
"Stibbons, what th' hell?
The Lecturer in Recent Runes, along with the Reader of Invisible Writings, the Camerlengo, the Master of the Traditions, and eight other faculty members moved as one2 toward Ridicully. The approach, direct as an arrow and nearly as fast, ended only because Stibbons found himself colliding with the far end of the dining room table. He stopped there, reluctantly, and tried to form the words. He needed to be calm. He needed to be wizardly. He--
"Bad form, young Stibbons!" The Senior Wrangler called. "I've spilled my wine on account of you."
The wizards looked in unison from the reedy wrath that was Ponder Stibbons to the slowly spreading pool of Quirm Cabarnet in the middle of the table. A plate of cold cuts and crackers was drowning. The wizards' collective anger was nearly as loud as Ponder's.
Ponder focused on his breathing, trying to slow it down. Just explain it, he thought. They can fix it, they're wizards, at some point they have to be professional--
"All over the tenderloin!" shouted the Lecturer in Vindictive Astronomy.
"Last glass of that vintage, too!" Wailed Recent Runes. The commiseration he expected failed to materialize, as the Chair of Oblique Frogs demanded to know why Runes received the final glass of Quirm, and the Professor of Recondite Architecture insisted there must be one more bottle, surely, if they could ring a porter up and ask him to check.
Ponder's breath seized as the young wizard prepared to howl at the top of his lungs. Then seized again as Ridicully's fist firmly met the tabletop with a sound not unlike a battering ram meeting a door. The glasses and plates of the evening's dinner leapt off the wood three quarters of an inch before landing again, upright but wobbling.
"Stibbons, I should tell you you'd better have a good reason for interrupting dinner and ruining a perfectly good plate of tenderloin--"
"I do, sir! If only you'd--"
"--but I damn well know you must, otherwise you wouldn't be showin' up in here like a ghost bit you in the arse, so let's have it."
Ponder struggled as an explanation slammed into a protest and both fought to escape his mouth at the same time. He settled, after a moment, on neither:
"Follow me, please."
The walk from the dining room to Hex's chamber in the High Energy Magic Building took about five minutes for the average Ankh-Morpork citizen, and so ten for the average Unseen University wizard. To Ridicully's puzzlement, Ponder led them left out of the dining room doors, not towards the High Energy building at all, but towards the nearest pantry.3 He swung open the heavy oak door and, rather than crashing into the rows of bottles and pans beyond it, vanished with a high-pitched bwee.
"Did the lad just teleport?" asked the Senior Wrangler.
"I wouldn't call that a proper teleport at all," said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. "What sort of teleport goes bwee?"
"Right," said Ridicully, scrutinizing the otherwise-normal pantry and looking with some longing at the unreachable bottles of stout on the far shelves. "So who's goin' through next?" He looked over his shoulder at the collected members of the university council. They looked, to his dismay, just as wary of teleportation through a larder as they had of walking across campus in a hurry. Reflecting that his University wasn't going to eat him and even if it did it'd be less time-consuming than the faculty's excuses, he stepped through the doorway and felt as though the entire universe was turning left.
Then he was inside Hex's chamber, beside Ponder Stibbons and surrounded on all sides by tubes. The tubes were not unusual; Hex grew every day, often into other parts of the building, and lately even its beehive memory box sported a xylophone-like assortment of cylinders on either side. The clanking of the water-wheel, the translucent silver towers floating over Hex's keyboard, even the squeaking of Hex's errant mouse; none of these were unusual.
Looking about the room, Ridicully noticed two unusual things. First, rather than its usual soothing declarations of this or that discovery in blit space, Hex was repeatedly uttering TONKER in otherworldly, jagged tones. Second, red ants, not the usual black, scurried through every one of the tubes that made up Hex's brain.
Ridicully reached to touch one of the nearest tubes; the ants briefly gathered around his fingertips on the glass, like magic bolts in a crystal ball, then scurried away at speed. The entire machine shuddered.
"Hex," he said, a trifle uncertainly, "are you feeling okay?"
TONKER, Hex roared. MILLENNIUM HAND AND SHRIMP.
"Hell's bells," Ridicully said. "How did this happen?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," said Ponder, giving a miserable shrug. "I left for a moment to get some more cheese for the mouse, and when I came back--red ants, no new data, and a spatial distortion that led into the larder."
"How did they even get in there?" Ridicully watched red ants flow through the system like blood through veins. "Did someone take an axe or somethin' to one of the pipes?"
Ponder shook his head. "No, Archchancellor. Hex hasn't been, er, hacked. It's almost like he's got an...illness or something."
"What exactly does--" Ridicully started, but the neverending TONKER TONKER TONKER drowned him out. He glared across the room at Hex's mask, reminded himself blasting a spell or two at the mask would do nothing to quiet down the voice, and raised his own voice instead. "--does this mean for us? Other than a shortcut through the pantry?"
Ponder considered, watching the ants flow through the pipes. Hex was probably the only thing in the university capable of providing a pleasant surprise, but they were surprises all the same. Hex worked in blit-space; Hex worked with subthaumic particles. Collect enough excess magical energy and Hex could create little worlds. Aside from the headache Ponder knew he'd have in a few minutes, what exactly could he expect to happen?
"Maybe nothing more than annoyance, Archchancellor, or perhaps the destruction of the disc."
"So about the same as half our staff, only louder about it." Ridicully looked to Hex's aquarium, where panicked fish darted back and forth so quickly the water nearly boiled, and back again to the endlessly scrambling ants. "Clearly this is a crisis, Stibbons. It needs sorting out."
Ponder nodded. "Without a doubt, sir."
"Left unchecked, this could be the end of our great University, or even the entire world."
Ponder nodded again. "Very possibly, Archchancellor."
"I trust, therefore, you will put the utmost effort into fixin' the bloody thing," Ridicully said cheerfully. He turned on his heel and started back towards the pantry.
Ponder started to nod. The switch from nodding to shaking his head happened so quickly it actually hurt. "But--sir!"
Ridicully looked back over his shoulder. "Stibbons, part of being an Archchancellor is the fine art of delegation. You can't obsess over every problem that comes up, man! You've got to trust some things to your staff. It's worked out for me so far."
"But you always delegate everything to me, Archchancellor!"
"Exactly." Ridicully grinned, stepped into the pantry, and felt the entire universe turn right. Ponder stared after him a moment or two before turning back to Hex. The mask seemed to smirk at him from its wall.
Some days, being the only competent wizard at Unseen University brought Ponder a measure of pride. Most wizards his age did little more than play silly buggers with beam spells and dare each other to steal bananas from the Librarian. Meanwhile Ponder technically controlled the University Council; Ponder led the project to split the thaum; Ponder did new and amazing things every day!
As Hex blared TONKER in thirty different languages4 and spewed scroll after scroll of +++ACHOO! ACHOO! ACHOO!+++ from its quill, he reflected somewhere, there was a wizard who was just one competent man among many; a man without a dozen positions or the trust of an Archchancellor; a man who went to bed by ten; a man utterly mundane.
Ponder took a moment to envy him terribly.
Then he took a seat and got to work, because somebody had to do it, and gods knew that at Unseen University, he shouldn't let it be anyone other than him.
1And the Bursar scrambling up a pillar, till the bledlows coaxed him down.
2Because they were all named Ponder Stibbons.
3UU Wizards treat pantries like programmers treat backups. You can never have too much redundancy.
4Impressive, since the disc only has twenty-nine.