Home > Raising Steam (Discworld #40)

Raising Steam (Discworld #40)
Terry Pratchett

It is hard to understand nothing, but the multiverse is full of it. Nothing travels everywhere, always ahead of something, and in the great cloud of unknowing nothing yearns to become something, to break out, to move, to feel, to change, to dance and to experience – in short, to be something.

And now it found its chance as it drifted in the ether. Nothing, of course, knew about something, but this something was different, oh yes, and so nothing slid silently into something and floated down with everything in mind and, fortunately, landed on the back of a turtle, a very large one, and hurried to become something even faster. It was elemental and nothing was better than that and suddenly the elemental was captured! The bait had worked.

Anyone who has ever seen the River Ankh sliding along its bed of miscellaneous nastiness would understand why so much of the piscine food for the people of Ankh-Morpork has to be supplied by the fishing fleets of Quirm. In order to prevent terrible gastric trouble for the citizenry, Ankh-Morpork fishmongers have to ensure that their suppliers make their catches a long, long way from the city.

For Bowden Jeffries, purveyor of the very best in seafood, the two hundred miles or more which lay between the fish docks at Quirm and the customers in Ankh-Morpork was a regrettably long distance throughout the winter, autumn and spring and a sheer penance in the summertime, because the highway, such as it was, became a linear furnace all the way to the Big City. Once you had had to deal with a ton of overheated octopus, you never forgot it; the smell lasted for days, and followed you around and almost into your bedroom. You could never get it out of your clothes.

People were so demanding, but the elite of Ankh-Morpork and, indeed, everyone else wanted their fish, even in the hottest part of the season. Even with an icehouse built by his own two hands and, by arrangement, a second icehouse halfway along the journey, it made you want to cry, it really did.

And he said as much to his cousin, Relief Jeffries, a market gardener, who looked at his beer and said, ‘It’s always the same. Nobody wants to help the small entrepreneur. Can you imagine how quickly strawberries turn into little balls of mush in the heat? Well, I’ll tell you: no time at all. Blink and you miss ’em, just when everybody wants their strawberries. And you ask the watercress people how difficult it is to get the damn stuff to the city before it’s as limp as a second-day sermon. We should petition the government!’

‘No,’ said his cousin. ‘I’ve had enough of this. Let’s write to the newspapers! That’s the way to get things done. Everyone’s complaining about the fruit and vegetables and the seafood. Vetinari should be made to understand the plight of the small-time entrepreneur. After all, what do we occasionally pay our taxes for?’

Dick Simnel was ten years old when, back at the family smithy in Sheepridge, his father simply disappeared in a cloud of furnace parts and flying metal, all enveloped in a pink steam. He was never found in the terrible haze of scorching dampness, but on that very day young Dick Simnel vowed to whatever was left of his father in that boiling steam that he would make steam his servant.

His mother had other ideas. She was a midwife, and as she said to her neighbours, ‘Babbies are born everywhere. I’ll never be without a customer.’ So, against her son’s wishes, Elsie Simnel decided to take him away from what she now considered to be a haunted place. She packed up their belongings and together they returned to her family home near Sto Lat, where people didn’t inexplicably disappear in a hot pink cloud.

Soon after they arrived something important happened to her boy. One day while waiting for his mother to return from a difficult delivery, Dick walked into a building that looked interesting, and which turned out to be a library. At first he thought it was full of poncy stuff, all kings and poets and lovers and battles, but in one crucial book he found something called mathematics and the world of numbers.

And that was why, one day some ten years later, he pulled together every fibre of his being and said, ‘Mother, you know last year when I said I were going ’iking in the mountains of Uberwald with me mates, well, it were kind of … sort of … a kind of lie, only very small, mind you.’ Dick blushed. ‘You see, I found t’keys to Dad’s old shed and, well, I went back to Sheepridge and did some experimenting and …’ he looked at his mother anxiously, ‘I think I know what ’e were doing wrong.’

Dick was braced for stiff objections, but he hadn’t reckoned on tears – so many tears – and as he tried to console her he added, ‘You, Mother, and Uncle Flavius got me an education, you got me the knowing of the numbers, including the arithmetic and weird stuff dreamed up by the philosophers in Ephebe where even camels can do logarithms on their toes. Dad didn’t know this stuff. He had the right ideas but he didn’t have the … tech-nol-ogy right.’

At this point, Dick allowed his mother to talk, and she said, ‘I know there’s no stopping you, our Dick, you’re just like your stubborn father were, pigheaded. Is that what you’ve been doin’ in the barn? Teck-ology?’ She looked at him accusingly, then sighed. ‘I can see I can’t tell you what to do, but you tell me: how can your “logger-reasons” stop you goin’ the way of your poor old dad?’ She started sobbing again.

Dick pulled out of his jacket something that looked like a small wand, which might have been made for a miniature wizard, and said, ‘This’ll keep me safe, Mother! I’ve the knowing of the sliding rule! I can tell the sine what to do, and the cosine likewise and work out the tangent of t’quaderatics! Come on, Mother, stop fretting and come wi’ me now to t’barn. You must see ’er!’

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