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In a Pinch

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Vila pushed the door open and looked around. Bit of a dive, but then the pubs he remembered with affection from the old days back on Earth were too. The Mended Drum had the same familiar and friendly ambience, what with the smell of cheap beer, the dodgy-looking characters huddled plotting in dark corners, scarred veterans of bar brawls looking ready for more, and the red hairy alien scoffing a huge bowl of peanuts. Oh all right, maybe not the hairy alien; not something you saw every day back in the Domes. Or decade, really. Vila regarded it nervously but no one else seemed to be bothered by it, so he veered around it, keeping a look out for a likely wizard. Ah, that bloke there with the pointy hat on the bar in front of him; he'd do, especially since there happened to be empty stools either side of him.

Vila slid onto the closest one and ordered a beer. He peered into the murky depths of the glass, wondering what the floaty bits were, then gave a mental shrug and knocked half of it back. It hadn't killed anyone else here, and frankly, he'd had worse. He cast a glance at the wizard beside him. "I heard students from the Unseen University drink here."

"You're in luck. Buggers all clear off when I come in."

"Ah. I was hoping to pick some brains."

"What with? You'd be out of luck with that lot anyway."

The guy had the weathered red face of the sort of outdoors sporty type they showed on vids of hardy pioneers on frontier worlds, a luxuriant white beard, an academic cape, and the sort of voice you'd hear not just at the back of a lecture theatre but several streets away. "Are you a professor?" Vila ventured.

"Certainly not! Do I look like an idiot?"

Vila blinked, puzzled.

"Not from around here, are you?"

Vila shook his head.

"Didn't think so. Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully."

"Pleased to meet you. I'm Vila Restal." Vila held out his hand and had it nearly crushed. Wincing, he put it gently into a comforting underarm. "You're just who I'm looking for, then. I mean, you'd be better than a student."

"Wouldn't be hard."

"See, our spaceship's stuck in one of your elephants."

Ridcully's hand jerked, spilling his beer. "Stuckwhere?"

"Nowhere painful!" Vila said hastily. "Well, not for the elephant, anyway."

"Better not be. Discworld is based on those wrinkled bastards. All right, lad." Ridcully slammed his glass down, so fast that the remaining liquid hesitated a fraction of a second before falling. "What did you do?"

"Wasn't me."

Vila, ostensibly on watch with his feet up and his eyes half closed, suddenly sat upright, staring at Zen's display in disbelief. "Um. Avon?"

"Yes?" Avon didn't bother to raise his head from his work table.

"D'you see what I see?"

"Obviously not."

"Well, have a look! A tortoise with elephants on it!"

Avon sighed. "What have you been drinking?"

"Nothing! Well, just cocoa if you must know. Just look, will you!"

"At wha--" There was a long silence.

"You can see it too, can't you."

"It... it must be a spacecraft of some sort."

"Not that size, it's not. It's got atmosphere."

Avon got up and went to stand in front of the screen. "Zen. Change course to bring us closer to that... object."


"And weather," said Vila in awe as the image grew. "And a little sun and moon."

"So I see."

"And towns and cities and farms and whatnot. Avon, you know all those jokes about primitives thinking the world's flat and everything goes round it? Whoever lives down there'd be right!"

"Yes." Avon's voice sounded a bit tense.

"Worries you, doesn’t it? Worries me too. I mean, where does the water that falls off go? Why don't they run out of it?"

"The atmosphere extends underneath of course. The water turns to vapour and condenses again as rain."

"All right, know-it-all, what's a bloody big tortoise--"


"--and four elephants doing in space? What do they eat? How did they get born? Where did the flat world come from?"

"Simple," said Avon. "The entire thing is a construct. What look like animals are enormous machines."

Vila clutched Avon's arm. "Think again. That elephant's watching us."

"They're AIs of course," Avon said dismissively (though with a certain detectable effort). "Programmed to deflect asteroids."

"Avon, the turtle's noticed us now. Um, better move off a bit?"

"You mean it's detected us." Avon irritably shook Vila's hand off. "It is merely a method of propulsion given a fanciful shape."

"Why the elephants, then?"

"Because it would be difficult to balance a flat world on a curved shell," Avon said with exaggerated patience.

"I don't believe you," Vila said slowly.

"It's simple geometry."

"I mean about them being machines. They're alive."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"They've got water and air. Maybe they live off energy from the little sun or something."

"Vila--" Avon shook his head. "All right, I will prove it to you. Zen. Get us close enough to that elephant to analyse its outer layer."


"I don't think that's a good idea." Vila stared with misgiving as the elephant filled the screen.

"Come now, Vila. All knowledge is--"

"Useful, yeah, yeah. AAAUGH! AVON, LOOK OUT!"

And that was when the elephant whipped its trunk out towards them, a vast, dark tunnel mouth that rushed at them, stopped just as it was about to engulf them, contorted into an infinity symbol, and held the Liberator firmly in place like a human holding a toothpick between thumb and forefinger.

"Sounds a bit like a Ponder Stibbons, that chap."

"Don't know quite what that is--"

"Neither do I, frankly."

"But the Ponder bit sounds right."

"So you weren't exactly stuck in the elephant."

"More like in a bit of a pinch, really."

"Zen, reverse thrust!" Avon snapped.

"Information. That is not a recommended course of action."

"Just do it!"

"We're not moving," Vila said over the increasing whine of the Liberator's drive, but spoke too soon. The elephant waved its trunk in fury, causing Avon and Vila to grab at the nearest object to stay upright which, was in both cases, each other.

"Let go of me, you idiot!" Avon said.

"Same to you!" Vila said resentfully, pulling loose.

"Zen, cut drive power."

"Confirmed," Zen said, rather more rapidly than usual.

"Vila!" Blake's voice came over the comms. "What the hell's going on?"

Vila glared accusingly at Avon. "It's your fault!" he mouthed.

"Go back to sleep, Blake," Avon said easily. "Just a brief asteroid field."

"Now what are we going to do?" Vila demanded.

Avon looked at him thoughtfully. "You seemed to like the look of that world."

"So you came lookin' for a wizard."

"Once I found out magic works here, it seemed like the best idea."

"Oh, I see. Just wave a wand and everything's all right?"

"Um. Yes?"

Ridcully leaned towards Vila who almost fell backward off his stool avoiding nose contact. "It's a world elephant. It supports a quarter of the Disc. It's bloody enormous and you think a spell will do anything to a great hulking behemoth like that?"

"Oh. Well, is there any sort of alternative?"

"Two of 'em." Ridcully sat back. "It'll get bored and let your craft go. Or crush it."

Vila looked stricken.

"You got here, didn't you? Your friend with the enquiring bloody mind can too. Got all sorts in Ankh-Morpork; we're not fussy."

Vila drained his glass, thinking fast. "You might regret that. Avon's the sort who experiments with everything, wants to pull things apart and see how they work. Like this whole place. Then there's Blake. He's a revolutionary and he wouldn't stand for the city being run by a tyrant. He'd want to replace your Vetinari with a democratic system of government."

"What the hell's that when it's at home?"

"Everyone gets a vote and the majority wins."

Ridcully stared at Vila in disbelief. "You seen that rabble out there? Doesn't take much to rouse 'em even though your bloke won't stand a chance with Vetinari. We already have one man, one vote, and it's his."

"It wouldn't make any difference to Blake. It's the principle of the thing. He's a freedom fighter. Then there's Cally," Vila said, warming to his subject. "She's telepathic. She can tell what people are thinking."

Ridcully reared back. "Can't allow that sort of thing! Chap's got to be able to think what he likes!"

"Jenna'd miss space," Vila said, inspecting his fingernails, "but I think she'd find the challenge of setting up a dragon-powered airline linking all the countries a very rewarding challenge."

"Right." Ridcully thumped the bar, causing several glasses to levitate briefly. "Should be able to think of a solution between us."

"Hang on, I'd better see how it's going." Vila raised his teleport bracelet to his mouth. "Avon? You got free yet?"

"No. The elephant's holding us tighter than ever and examining us with one of its eyes. Closely." Avon's voice sounded strained. "Have you come up with anything?"

"No, sorry, just checking up on how it's going."

"Just where are you, Vila? That sounds suspiciously like a pub."

"It is, but don't worry. I'm talking to the archchancellor of the university."

"Then drink less and talk more."

Vila turned the comms off. "And the opposite to you."

"Interesting device," Ridcully said. "Bit of an advance on the clacks."

"Probably," Vila said vaguely. "I was thinking." He paused out of sheer habit for the usual insult, but when none came, continued. "What if we gave the elephant something it'd like better than the Liberator."

"Could work. Something to eat?"

Vila hadn't thought about the elephant trying the Liberator out for taste and texture, but he did now. Mmmm, crunchy, he imagined it thinking. "What do elephants like, then?"

"No idea. We could ask the Librarian." Ridcully raised his voice to a medium boom. "Librarian?"

"Ook," said the hairy alien two stools away.

Vila stared. "That's a librarian?"

"Why not? Damn' good at climbing the shelves and the students respect the books a lot more than they used to. Very useful to have someone in charge who can take an arm off with one of his feet."

Vila gulped. "I suppose late returns are down too."

"What do elephants like eating, Librarian?" Ridcully asked.


"Bananas," Ridcully translated.

"Are you certain? There can't be a lot of them down in the underworld, or whatever you call it."


"Might not be," said Ridcully, "but it's in the nature of elephants to like the things."

"All right, we'll get some bananas, then."

"Oook, ook," the Librarian said mournfully.

"Says we'd need the entire season's crop from Howondaland."

"Ook." The Librarian squeezed his eyes shut and clapped his hands over the back of his neck.

"He likes 'em too," Ridcully explained.

"Don't worry," Vila cautiously patted a hairy arm. "I don't think we've got time for that."

The Librarian cheered up, bearing his teeth in a huge grin.

"Wouldn't have worked anyway," said Ridcully. "That elephant's got hold of something interestin'. Stands there doing nothing but holding a quarter of the world on its shoulders for thousands of years and you think it's likely to let go just for a tiny taste of something that might be good?"


"You need to give it something more interestin'."

"Or," said Vila, thinking of how Avon's attempts to get away by using the drive must be interfering with the elephant's close examination of the strange space phenomenon, "annoying."

"Annoyin'!" Ridcully sat back, tapping his nose. "Now there's an idea. But what would annoy an elephant?"

Vila regarded him thoughtfully. "Pepper?"

"What the hell would a pepper do?"

"Cayenne pepper, I meant. I sniffed that stuff up my nose once just checking to see if it was fresh and it took me ages to get rid of, well, the effects. Made Avon's week."

"Ah, yes. Well known cure for stuffed noses. Tried it once when I had a cold and you wouldn't believe what I sneezed out. Wondered if my brains were going to follow. Pinch of that stuff'd clear the sinuses right out, along with your spacecraft thingy."

"How much is a pinch in this case though? The entire pepper output of some other country?"

"A few barrels'd probably do it."

"Can we get hold of any here?"

"Course you can!" Ridcully stood up and clapped his hat on his head. "Curry Gardens. They use loads of the stuff along with chillies and all sort of other things we can add to the mix."

Now that sounded promising, and now he thought of it, Vila felt a bit peckish. "Is the food good there?" he asked, slapping down enough local currency (acquired on his initial exploration of Ankh-Morpork) on the bar to more than pay for his beer and anything Ridcully and the Librarian might have had.

"Death's favourite place."

Vila paused halfway to the tavern door, alarmed. "Um. Why? The food's that bad?"

"Dunno, but he eats there a lot."

Ah, just someone's nickname, then. Reassured, Vila followed Ridcully out, and the Librarian knuckled after them.

"So," Vila said, relaxing now that they had a course of action, "where did the turtle and elephants come from in the first place?"

"Hmm. Two theories about that: solid state and big bang."

"I meant the Discworld, not the universe."

"So did I. Either they've always been there or," Ridcully hesitated, looking embarrassed, something Vila wouldn't have thought possible, "usual process." Ridcully cleared his throat. "Parents and that," he rumbled.

"Oh. That sort of bi--. Right. Still, there could be a third option, you know. That they were built like Avon thinks."

Ridcully stopped and looked at Vila. "You'd better hope he's wrong. Otherwise your plan's not going to work."


"Vila! Where are you?"

"At the Curry Gardens."

"At the... Do you have any conception of how urgent this is?"

"Don’t worry, we're just here getting ammunition."

"And a meal, knowing you."

"Not really. The house special of sweet and sore balls put me off a bit and you have to pay extra to get curry with named meat."


"Not that any of that worried the skinny guy in a hood who just collected his takeaway. He might have been a bit scary if it wasn't for the kitten on his shoulder."


"Look, we'll be there in a few minutes. They're just getting the barrels now."


"See you soon."


Vila looked at the three large barrels he'd purchased from the Curry Gardens. "Thing is, I'm not sure how we're going to get these back to the Liberator. We can't even lift them."

"Ook!" The Librarian raised a barrel over his head, grinned, and set it back down.

"Well, two of us can't."

"Thought these bracelet thingies you brought with you would do the job," Ridcully said.

"They only work on living things. They use the quantum effects in the brain or something," Vila said vaguely, "so it's you and your clothes and whatever you can carry."

"Ooo-ook!" The Librarian stuck his stomach out and patted it.

Vila tilted his head, puzzled. "You want some curry?"

"No, no. He means we could strap the things to us. You'd need a fair length of leather but the belts the Dean's grown out of'd do it. Then when we go, the barrels'd come too."

Vila went pale. "And if they didn't? I'd like to keep myself in one piece, thank you very much!"

Ridcully shrugged and drew his wand. "No problem. I'll just make 'em lighter."


Avon sat silently staring as the three of them materialised in the teleport bay. He shook his head slightly as if to clear it. "You were right," he said finally.

Vila's eyes widened in delight. "Really?"

"About the hairiness of aliens."

"That's the University Librarian," Vila said proudly. "And the Archchancellor."

"And three empty barrels, apparently."

"Only apparently. They're full of cayenne pepper, black pepper, and chilli powder. Archchancellor Ridcully put--" Vila hesitating, sensing that Avon's response to the idea of magic would not be very positive, "--some antigrav on them."

Avon closed his eyes for a couple of seconds. "And all of this, presumably, is based on the supposition that the elephant is alive."

"If we're wrong, then you'll just have to hack it, won't you."

"Hack?" Ridcully growled. "Now you just hang on a moment there, lad."

"It only means reprogram its electronic brain," Vila said.

"Ah, like Stibbons and his Hex." Ridcully snorted. "Good luck with that. Elephants' heads aren't full of ants, ram skulls, and fluffy teddy bears."

Avon gave Vila an icy look. "Archchancellor, you said? That's basically administration." The last word dripped with contempt. "And exactly how do you plan to deliver the barrels' contents, Vila?"

"I thought of crawling out onto the Liberator's prongs and shaking the spices out of the barrels--"

"If the situation were less serious, I might have rather enjoyed watching that."

"--and then using the neutron blasters--"

"Do you have any idea of what would be involved in modifying them?"

"Yeah, I do actually. So we're doing it the simple way. We stick some small timed explosives on the lids, you teleport us halfway up the trunk, we set the timers and let them go, you bring us back."

Avon blinked. "That... could possibly work."


Zen's forward display was still showing the unrelieved black of the inside of an elephant's trunk. "The barrels should be have been breached several minutes ago and nothing has happened." Satisfaction at being right about the elephant being a construct warred in Avon with frustration at being still in its grip.

"Give it time," Ridcully said. "Takes a while for anything to get up a trunk that size."

"Oook!" said the Librarian.

"And for the urge to sneeze to make it to the brain."

Avon sighed. If he couldn't get the Liberator loose before the pressure on the hull crushed it, he would have to spend the rest of his life with people like Ridcully, the Librarian, and most of all, Vila on a flat world balanced on four elephants standing on a turtle, and the whole idea offended him on a very deep level.

"It'll work," said Vila sprawled in his flight chair, his feet up on his station.

Then the whole ship was violently shaken, throwing everyone to the floor. The forward display now showed a whirling starfield with the Discworld racing across it every second or so.

"Told you," said Vila, hauling himself to his feet.

"Zen! Stabilise!" Avon snapped. And take us back towards that... that world out there."


"Look at it!" Awe reduced Ridcully to a near whisper. "Never thought I'd ever see the whole thing like that. Makes you think."

"Ook." The Librarian laid a hand on Ridcully's shoulder.

"And," said Vila, grinning at Avon, "I was ri--"

"Asteroids again," Avon said hastily into the comms. "Nothing to worry about." He turned to Vila. "And you had better return your companions. Preferably before anyone on this ship decides to investigate and demands an explanation."

"All right. I'll go with them so I can bring the bracelets back."

Avon looked at him thoughtfully. "You had better be back before my shift is over. Blake's on duty next."

"Don't suppose we could keep one of those thingies." Ridcully rattled the bracelet on his wrist as he followed Vila off the flight deck. "Wouldn't mind getting young Stibbons to look it over."

"Sorry, mate," said Vila. "We keep losing them and we need them all."


It was about three hours later that Vila returned, and Avon, who had wondered whether he would, found that he was oddly relieved. "What took you so long?"

"Had a bit of a look around. We'll probably never find this place again, what with it being on the move all the time. Couldn't pass up the chance, could I." Vila flung himself onto the flight-deck couch and looked a little wistfully at the white hat he was holding with 'I ♥ A-M' embroidered on it in bright red.

"If you love it so much, why didn't you stay?"

"I did consider it. But they've got this Thieves' Guild with all sorts of strict rules and regulations. You know me. Not really my thing, that."

"No." Avon smiled slightly. "Game of chess?"