Going Postal (Discworld #33)


‘Yes, yes, very good,’ said Ridcully. ‘Was there something else, Mr Stibbons?’ Ponder looked at his clipboard. ‘There’s a polite letter from Lord Vetinari asking on behalf of the city whether the University might consider including in its intake, oh, twenty-five per cent of less able students, sir?’ Ridcully potted the black, through a heap of university directives. ‘Can’t have a bunch of grocers and butchers telling a university how to run itself, Stibbons!’ he said firmly, lining up on a red. ‘Thank them for their interest and tell them we’ll continue to take one hundred per cent of complete and utter dullards, as usual. Take ’em in dull, turn ’em out sparklin’, that’s always been the UU way! Anythin’ else?’

‘Just this message for the big race tonight, Archchancellor.’

‘Oh, yes, that thing. What should I do, Mr Stibbons? I hear there’s heavy betting on the Post Office.’

‘Yes, Archchancellor. People say the gods are on the side of Mr Lipwig.’

‘Are they betting?’ said Ridcully, watching with satisfaction as the ball rematerialized on the other side of a neglected ham sandwich. ‘I don’t think so, sir. He can’t possibly win.’

‘Was he the fella who rescued the cat?’

‘That was him, sir, yes,’ said Ponder. ‘Good chap. What do we think of the Grand Trunk? Bunch of bean-crushers, I heard. Been killin’ people on those towers of theirs. Man in the pub told me he’d heard the ghosts of dead signallers haunt the Trunk. I’ll try for the pink.’

‘Yes, I’ve heard that, sir. I think it’s an urban myth,’ said Ponder. ‘They travel from one end of the Trunk to the other, he said. Not a bad way to spend eternity, mark you. There’s some splendid scenery up in the mountains.’ The Archchancellor paused, and his big face screwed up in thought. ‘Haruspex’s Big Directory of Varying Dimensions,’ he said at last. ‘Pardon, Archchancellor?’

‘That’s the message,’ said Ridcully. ‘No one said it had to be a letter, eh?’ He waved a hand over the tip of the cue, which grew a powdering of fresh chalk. ‘Give them a copy each of the new edition. Send ’em to our man in Genua . . . what’s his name, thingummy, got a funny name . . . show him the old Alma Pater is thinkin’ of him.’

‘That’s Devious Collabone, sir. He’s out studying Oyster Communications in a Low Intensity Magical Field for his B.Thau.’

‘Good gods, can they communicate?’ said Ridcully. ‘Apparently, Archchancellor, although thus far they’re refusing to talk to him.’

‘Why’d we send him all the way out there?’

‘Devious H. Collabone, Archchancellor?’ Ponder prompted. ‘Remember? With the terrible halitosis?’

‘Oh, you mean Dragonbreath Collabone?’ said Ridcully, as realization dawned. ‘The one who could blow a hole in a silver plate?’

‘Yes, Archchancellor,’ said Ponder patiently. Mustrum Ridcully always liked to triangulate in on new information from several positions. ‘You said that out in the swamps no one would notice? If you remember, we allowed him to take a small omniscope.’

‘Did we? Far-thinking of us. Call him up right now and tell him what’s going on, will you?’

‘Yes, Archchancellor. In fact I’ll leave it a few hours because it’s still night time in Genua.’

‘That’s only their opinion,’ said Ridcully, sighting again. ‘Do it now, man.’ Fire from the sky . . . Everyone knew that the top half of the towers rocked as the messages flew along the Trunk. One day, someone was going to do something about it. And all old signallers knew that if the connecting rod operating the shutters on the down-line was pushed up to open them on the same blink as the connecting rod on the up-line was pulled down to close the shutters on the other side of the tower, the tower lurched. It was being pushed from one side and pulled from the other, which would have roughly the same effect as a column of marching soldiers could have on an old bridge. That wasn’t too much of a problem, unless it occurred again and again so that the rocking built up to a dangerous level. But how often would that happen? Every time the Woodpecker arrived at your tower, that was how often. And it was like an illness that could only attack the weak and sick. It wouldn’t have attacked the old Trunk, because the old Trunk was too full of tower captains who’d shut down instantly and strip the offending message out of the drum, secure in the knowledge that their actions would be judged by superiors who knew how a tower worked and would have done the same thing themselves.

It would work against the new Trunk, because there weren’t enough of those captains now. You did what you were told or you didn’t get paid and if things went wrong it wasn’t your problem. It was the fault of whatever idiot had accepted this message for sending in the first place. No one cared about you, and everyone at headquarters was an idiot. It wasn’t your fault; no one listened to you. Headquarters had even started an Employee of the Month scheme to show how much they cared. That was how much they didn’t care. And today you’d been told to shift code as fast as possible, and you didn’t want to be the one accused of slowing the system down, so you watched the next tower in line until your eyes watered and you hit keys like a man tapdancing on hot rocks. One after another, the towers failed. Some burned when the shutter boxes broke free and smashed on the cabin roofs, spilling blazing oil. There was no hope of fighting fire in a wooden box sixty feet up in the air; you slid down the suicide line and legged it to a safe distance to watch the show. Fourteen towers were burning before someone took their hands off the keys. And then what? You’d been given orders. There were to be no, repeat no other messages on the Trunk while this message was being sent. What did you do next? Moist awoke, the Grand Trunk burning in his head. The Smoking Gnu wanted to break it down and pick up the pieces, and he could see why. But it wouldn’t work. Somewhere on the line there was going to be one inconvenient engineer who’d risk his job to send a message ahead saying: it’s a killer, shift it slowly. And that would be that. Oh, it might take a day or two to get the thing to Genua, but they had weeks to work with. And someone else, too, would be smart enough to compare the message with what had been sent by the first tower. Gilt would wriggle out of it – no, he’d storm out of it. The message had been tampered with, he’d say, and he’d be right. There had to be another solution. The Gnu were on to something, though. Changing the message was the answer, if only he could do it in the right way. Moist opened his eyes. He was at his desk, and someone had put a pillow under his head. When was the last time he’d slept in a decent bed? Oh, yes, the night Mr Pump had caught him. He’d spent a couple of hours in a rented bed that had a mattress which didn’t actually move and wasn’t full of rocks. Bliss. His immediate past life scampered before his eyes. He groaned. ‘Good Morning, Mr Lipvig,’ said Mr Pump from the corner. ‘Your Razor Is Sharp, The Kettle Is Hot And I Am Sure A Cup Of Tea Is On The Way.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Noon, Mr Lipvig. You Did Not Get In Until Dawn,’ the golem added reproachfully. Moist groaned again. Six hours to the race. And then so many pigeons would come home to roost it’d be like an eclipse. ‘There Is Much Excitement,’ said the golem, as Moist shaved. ‘It Has Been Agreed That The Starting Line Will Be In Sator Square.’ Moist stared at his reflection, barely listening. He always raised the stakes, automatically. Never promise to do the possible. Anyone could do the possible. You should promise to do the impossible, because sometimes the impossible was possible, if you could find the right way, and at least you could often extend the limits of the possible. And if you failed, well, it had been impossible. But he’d gone too far this time. Oh, it’d be no great shame to admit that a coach and horses couldn’t travel at a thousand miles an hour, but Gilt would strut about it and the Post Office would remain just a little, old-fashioned thing, behind the times, small, unable to compete. Gilt would find some way to hold on to the Grand Trunk, cutting even more corners, killing people out of greed— ‘Are You All Right, Mr Lipvig?’ said the golem behind him.

Moist stared into his own eyes, and what flickered in the depths. Oh, boy. ‘You Have Cut Yourself, Mr Lipvig,’ said Mr Pump. ‘Mr Lipvig?’ Shame I missed my throat, Moist thought. But that was a secondary thought, edging past the big dark one now unfolding in the mirror. Look into the abyss and you’ll see something growing, reaching towards the light. It whispered: Do this. This will work. Trust me. Oh, boy. It’s a plan that will work, Moist thought. It’s simple and deadly, like a razor. But it’d need an unprincipled man to even think about it. No problem there, then. I’ll kill you, Mr Gilt. I’ll kill you in our special way, the way of the weasel and cheat and liar. I’ll take away everything but your life. I’ll take away your money, your reputation and your friends. I’ll spin words around you until you’re cocooned in them. I’ll leave you nothing, not even hope . . . He carefully finished shaving, and wiped the remnant of the foam off his chin. There was not, in truth, that much blood. ‘I think I could do with a hearty breakfast, Mr Pump,’ he said. ‘And then I have a few things to do. In the meantime, can you please find me a broomstick? A proper birch besom? And then paint some stars on the handle?’ The makeshift counters were crowded when Moist went down, but the bustle stopped when he entered the hall. Then a cheer went up. He nodded and waved cheerfully, and was immediately surrounded by people waving envelopes. He did his best to sign them all. ‘A lot o’ extra mail for Genua, sir!’ Mr Groat exulted, pushing his way through the crowd. ‘Never seen a day like it, never!’

‘Jolly good, well done,’ Moist murmured. ‘And the mail for the gods has gone right up, too!’ Groat continued. ‘Pleased to hear it, Mr Groat,’ said Moist. ‘We’ve got the first Sto Lat stamps, sir!’ said Stanley, waving a couple of sheets above his head. ‘The early sheets are covered in flaws, sir!’

‘I’m very happy for you,’ said Moist. ‘But I’ve got to go and prepare a few things.’

‘Aha, yes!’ said Mr Groat, winking.’ “A few things”, eh? Just as you say, sir. Stand aside, please, Postmaster coming through!’ Groat more or less pushed customers out of the way as Moist, trying to avoid the people who wanted him to kiss babies or were trying to grab a scrap of his suit for luck, made it out into the fresh air. Then he kept to the back streets, and found a place that did a very reasonable Double Soss, Egg, Bacon and Fried Slice, in the hope that food could replace sleep. It was all getting out of hand. People were putting out bunting and setting up stalls in Sator Square. The huge floating crowd that was the street population of Ankh-Morpork ebbed and flowed around the city, and tonight it would contract to form a mob in the square, and could be sold things. Finally he plucked up his courage and headed for the Golem Trust. It was closed. A bit more graffiti had been added to the strata that now covered the boarded-up window. It was just above knee-level and said, in crayon: ‘Golms are Made of pOo.’ It was good to see the fine old traditions of idiot bigotry being handed down, in a no-good-at-all kind of way. Dolly Sisters, he thought wildly, staying with an aunt. Did she ever mention the aunt’s name? He ran in that direction. Dolly Sisters had once been a village, before the sprawl had rolled over it; its residents still

considered themselves apart from the rest of the city, with their own customs – Dog Turd Monday, Up Needles All – and almost their own language. Moist didn’t know it at all. He pushed his way through the narrow lanes, looking around desperately for— what? A column of smoke? Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea . . . He reached the house eight minutes later, and hammered on the door. To his relief, she opened it, and stared at him. She said: ‘How?’ He said: ‘Tobacconists. Not many women around here have a hundred-a-day habit.’