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A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale, Part 6

Illustration for article titled A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale, Part 6

(Part 5, Previously)

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Kennard was awoken from his soothing sleep, aided by a small plush-sourced waterfall, by a feeling of unease. It was very much the same response that had been hardwired into brains from thousands of years of evolution and trial and error and, in some cases, tasty meals of those who lacke dthe same hardwired response. It was the knowledge that a large shadow covering you where there ought not to be a shadow was bad, and so Kennard slowly blinked opened his eyes, only to let out a small "Eep" of bowel-clenching terror at the sight of several thousand pounds of mahogany, glass, and ants hovering a yard away from his nose.

Nearby, Ponder Stibbons groaned, and shrugged off a temporary cloak made from pulverized stone and the promise of weeks of back aches. Glancing around, he noted Kennard's frozen fear-riddled form, and gently pulled him aside from underneath Hex. Pulling a length of braided hemp rope from a pocket, Stibbons began tying a know through a well-worn hole in the side of Hex's cabinet. Noting Kennard's expression of confusion, he gestured to the faint-pink haze surrounding the base of the cabinet.

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"Hex has an automatic failsafe hover charm. Helps when we have a clumsy servant knock over a rack of tubes*, and I can also activate it to help me get it about through the halls." Completing the crude leash, he gave Hex a slight tug and it floated as if on a layer of ice towards him. Kennard, meanwhile, had noticed the distinct silent absence of Mustrum Ridcully, and said as much to Ponder.

The younger wizard stifled a sigh of relief, and said "I heard him emerge from the rubble before I could, and storm off to speak with the other faculty. Doubtlessly he is with them now, and the longer he's away from Hex, the more of a chance I have to get something useful from it before he wrecks it or asks me to use it for something inane."

Deep in a cave made of pure deposits of sulfate crystals, arranged into beautiful stalactites, stalagmites, and stalagxites** that were unique to this dimension and region of a wormhole, a trio of formless grey cloaks materialized again. If one had just entered a house with the assembled figures, there would have been the very distinct silence one hears after the breaking off of a heated argument.

"It didn't work," said a voice from nowhere, centered on the central cloak.

"Of course it didn't," silently voiced another. "The calculations of debris shards indexed A2987^# from region 45HH2r& didn't properly round their increased mass from water seepage and soot buildup. They all missed the capability of cessation of the target organic function by ranges of 5-99.78%. "

"Actually," said the last figure, "they were rounded properly. The values just changed between the calculations and the event occurrence."

There was silence, and both of the other cloaks turned and leaned to face the last speaking figure.

"Impossible."

The last figure spoke again. "Truth. However, the changes were observed anyways. Hypothesis is that the organic's fracturing of spacetime is resulting in variances like this. Recommend cessation of function, this time with redundancies to prevent failure."

There was a feeling of assent amongst the figures, and then they dissipated, leaving the underground cavern of a lonely moon in an enormous plasma stream in silence once again.

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Rincewind tentatively poked the wood box, overlaid with a pleasing striped engraving and filled with-

"Archancellor, what did you say was in this again?"

Ridcully pushed his pointed hat back on his head, and continued to stir the pot that had been brought up. As Rincewind watched, he unwrapped more of the caramels from the bag sitting next to the bubbling pot, and chucked them in. "It's fer contradiction, you see. Those uptight cloaked bastards hate contradiction, like us."

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Rincewind wasn't familiar with the feeling of contradiction as he'd always and unwaveringly felt himself a coward, but he nodded in feigned agreement with Ridcully, who continued to speak while stirring vigorously. "So, what is a superb example of contradiction? This, right here," he said holding up a wrapped caramel. "Monsieur Bloodaxe's Salted Chili Caramels. In no way would any reasonable person expect this combination to work, and yet they taste like pure ambrosia.***"

Rincewind nodded again, and then slowly said "Then why the box?" as Ridcully picked up another empty wooden box, pressing the wooden button on the side causing the spring inside to pop the lid open. He then proceeded to pour in a generous helping of the caramel, spreading it across the interior with a large spoon, before setting the box aside with the others to cool and harden.

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"Well, we don't want one of the buggers to be getting out then, do we? You lob a caramel at one, they'll just dodge it and evaluate you until you're nothing but orderly atoms in neat piles. But you trap one inside of a box of caramel, and it's forced to evaluate the caramel itself, which will stump it to no end, and then you've got it!"

Ridcully's manic grin encouraged Rincewind to not press further on the line of the boxes, and instead he pointed towards a stack of water pumps attached to short hoses to ask what they were for. They had been hastily delivered from the Guild of Engineers, along with a shipment of eggs and raw chicken from the Guild of Livestock. The Archancellor had just thrown all of the eggs and poultry into a hand-crank juicer he had dragged up from the kitchens****, and was pouring the yellow, lumpy slurry into the tanks of the pumps.

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"Ah! More confusion for the blighters! Which came first, eh? The chicken or the egg? Well, hit em with a stream of this and they'll be confronted with both at once! Here, hold this one steady while I pour." Ridcully finished the last of the pumps, and then looped one of the pump straps over his shoulder while proffering another to Rincewind, who took it with a stare of unease. "Now, let's go get the Bursar and the rest, have them grab their own pumps and boxes, and meet me in the Great Hall," he said, before striding out the door. "I have to get some supplies."

Underneath the shady overhang of a orbiting asteroid, a puff of grey smoke is seen on a rocky planetoid's surface, and a lone cloak swirling with mist appears. There is an air of someone very carefully yet very quickly double-checking a set of calculations.

"Impossible."

Another cloak materializes, then a third, and fourth, and more until the asteroid's shadow stretches to two or three times it's size.

"Have the calculations been confirmed?"

There is a feeling of affirmative assessment, and then the collective voice of the group is heard again.

"Then it must be stopped." At this, a dozen of the cloaks disappear.

Ponder was huddled over a complicated arrangement of wire and ornate candles, working with something that looked like a small pea or ball bearing made of pure light bounding around a ball of copper wires. Ridcully was looking around the ceilings of the Great Hall, his hand on the pump and his eyes darting across the room. The other faculty held their own pumps and boxes, but were mainly giving each other raised eyebrows and attempting to not spill the yolky concoction in the pumps on their robes.

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"Ponder, is that democratically-selected-tron***** thingy ready yet?" Ridcully bellowed, ducking and weaving against nothing.

Stibbons sighed, but after lighting the candles the device hummed to life, and a small flickering could be seen inside of the loose sphere of jumbled bare copper wires. "Almost, almost, al-There, I have it!" he shouted excitedly as the small shimmering orb slowed, and began slowly, almost lazily moving in a straight line through the jumble of wire.

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"Well lad? Spit it out!" yelled Ridcully, as he eyes the slightly-darkening corners of the ceiling.

Ponder swallowed audibly, and yanked off the printed out sheet from the side of the device, and after clearing his throat, read aloud "Democratically-Selected-Tron Numbered R5 Location: 123 degrees 45 minutes 13 seconds North by 167 degrees 8 minutes 44 seconds West. Direction: 51.5 degrees from Rimwards, elevated by 1.66 degrees!"

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There was a puff of grey mist, and a dozen cloaked shapes appeared hovering overhead.

"FIRE!" yelled Ridcully, who began to pump frantically. "But don't cross the streams when you're getting 'em!"Rincewind abruptly stopped pumping before inquiring why, his mind filling with visions of monsters and magical explosions of all colors and sizes.

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"It'll make a mess and get yolk everywhere," Ridcully yelled while dousing a cloaked shape in liquified chicken and chicken embryo. "Now, GET THE BUGGERS!"

(Continued in Part 7)

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*Ponder privately remembered the initial issues they'd had when installing the charm in the first place, as it kept wanting to affect the ants in the tubes and the punch cards he inserted, causing Hex to spit out an endless loop of "CONFECTIONERY != TRUTH," "EXISTENCE != SPOON," and "HAROLD != PERMISSION." Eventually Stibbons was able to rearrange the rube so the hovering ants were mostly able to walk on the ceiling of the tubes instead in case of charm activation, and had a very confused blacksmith craft a set of tiny ball-and-chains for the ants in hover-critical locations.

**Stalagxites were generally only possible in fluctuating gravity environments, and basically consisted of a column of stone that would melt and reform on the ceiling or floor at regular intervals. Some might argue that this would make them just a regular stalactite or stalagmite, depending on when you observed it, to which geologists responded that quantum physics had no place in the everyday study of minerals, and promptly dubbed them stalagxites and left it at that.

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***Rincewind couldn't help but notice that ambrosia generally didn't feel like it had set your mouth on fire, but he decided not to press the point.

****Needless to say, Rincewind had abruptly resolved to never drink orange juice at breakfast ever again at the sight of the juicer's newfound use.

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*****Ponder had first detected the particle with Hex's help, and after noting that it tended to be found in great abundance near people on tall things like thrones and podiums and the like, the name had stuck despite a nagging feeling that t could be improved a bit.

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