Read Nation Online

Authors: Terry Pratchett

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Nation

BOOK: Nation
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Terry Pratchett
Nation

For Lyn

HOW IMO MADE THE WORLD
, IN THE TIME WHEN THINGS WERE OTHERWISE AND THE MOON WAS DIFFERENT

I
mo set out one day to catch some fish, but there was no sea. There was nothing but Imo. So he spat in his hands and rubbed them together and made a ball of sea. After that he made some fish, but they were stupid and lazy. So he took the souls of some dolphins, who at least had learned to speak, and he mixed them with clay and rubbed them in his hands and changed their shape and they became people. They were clever but they could not swim all day, so Imo dug some more clay and rubbed it in his hands and baked it in the fire of his fishing camp, and that was how the land was made.

Soon the people filled all the lands and were hungry, so Imo took some of the night and rubbed it in his hands and made Locaha, the god of death.

Still Imo was not satisfied, and he said: I have been like a child playing in the sand. This is a flawed world. I had no plan. Things are wrong. I will rub it in my hands and make a better one.

But Locaha said: The mud is set. People will die.

Imo was angry and said: Who are you to question me?

And Locaha said: I am a part of you, as are all things. So I say to you, Give me the mortal world, and go and make your better one. I will rule here fairly. When a human dies, I will send them to be a dolphin until it is time for them to be born again. But when I find a creature who has striven, who has become more than the mud from which they were made, who has glorified this mean world by being a part of it, then I will open a door for them into your perfect world and they will no longer be creatures of time, for they will wear stars.

Imo thought this was a good idea, because it was his own creation, and went off to make his new world in the sky. But before he did this, and so that Locaha would not have things all his own way, he breathed into his hands and made the other gods so that while the people should die, it would be in their right time.

And this is why we are born in water, and do not kill dolphins, and look toward the stars.

CHAPTER 1
The Plague

T
HE SNOW CAME DOWN
so thickly, it formed fragile snowballs in the air that tumbled and melted as soon as they landed on the horses lined up along the dock. It was four in the morning and the place was coming alive and Captain Samson had never seen the dock in such a bustle. The cargo was flying out of the ship, literally; the cranes strained in their efforts to get the bales out as quickly as possible. The ship stank of the disinfectant already,
stank
of the stuff. Every man who came on board was so drenched in it that it dribbled out of his boots. But that wasn’t enough; some of them had squelched aboard with big, heavy spray cans that spat an acid-pink fog over everything.

And there was nothing Captain Samson could do about it. The agent for the owners was right there on the dockside with his orders in his hands. But Captain Samson was going to try.

“Do you really think we’re infectious, Mr. Blezzard?” he barked to the man on the dock. “I can assure you—”

“You are not infectious, Captain, as far as we know, but this is for your own good,” shouted the agent through his enormous megaphone. “And I must once again warn you and your men not to leave the ship!”

“We have families, Mr. Blezzard!”

“Indeed, and they are already being taken care of. Believe me, Captain, they are fortunate, and so will you be, if you follow orders. You
must
return to Port Mercia at dawn. I cannot stress enough how important this is.”

“Impossible! It’s the other side of the world! We’ve only been back a few hours! We are low on food and water!”

“You will set sail at dawn and rendezvous in the Channel with the
Maid of Liverpool
, just returned from San Francisco. Company men are aboard her now. They will give you everything you need. They will strip that ship to the waterline to see that you are properly provisioned and crewed!”

The captain shook his head. “This is not good enough, Mr. Blezzard. What you are asking—it’s too much. I—Good God, man, I need more authority than some words shouted through a tin tube!”

“I
think
you will find
me
all the authority you need, Captain. Do I have your permission to come aboard?”

The captain knew that voice.

It was the voice of God, or the next best thing. But although he recognized the voice, he hardly recognized the speaker standing at the foot of the gangplank. That was because he was wearing a sort of birdcage. At least, that’s what it looked like at first sight. Closer to, he could see that it was a fine metal framework with a thin gauze around it. The person inside walked in a shimmering cloud of disinfectant.

“Sir Geoffrey?” said the captain, just to be sure, as the man began to walk slowly up the glistening gangplank.

“Indeed, Captain. I’m sorry about this outfit. It’s called a salvation suit, for obvious reasons. It is necessary for your protection. The Russian influenza has been worse than you can possibly imagine! We believe the worst is over, but it has taken a terrible toll at every level of society.
Every
level, Captain. Believe me.”

There was something in the way the chairman said
every
that made the captain hesitate.

“I take it that His Majesty is…isn’t—” He stopped, unable to force the rest of the question out of his mouth.

“Not only His Majesty, Captain. I said ‘worse than you can possibly imagine,’” said Sir Geoffrey, while red disinfectant dripped off the bottom of the salvation suit and puddled on the deck like blood. “Listen to me. The only reason the country is not in total chaos at this moment is that most people are too scared to venture out. As chairman of the line, I order you—and as an old friend, I beg you—for the sake of the Empire, sail with the devil’s speed to Port Mercia and find the governor. Then you will—Ah, here come your passengers. This way, gentlemen.”

Two more carriages had pulled up in the chaos of the dockside. Five shrouded figures came up the gangplank, carrying large boxes between them, and lowered them onto the deck.

“Who are you, sir?” the captain demanded of the nearest stranger, who said:

“You don’t need to know that, Captain.”

“Oh, don’t I, indeed!” Captain Samson turned to Sir Geoffrey with his hands open in appeal. “Goddammit, Chairman, pardon my French, have I not served the line faithfully for more than thirty-five years? I am the captain of the
Cutty Wren
, sir! A captain must know his ship and all that is on it! I will not be kept in the dark, sir! If I cannot be trusted, I will walk down the gangplank right now!”

“Please don’t upset yourself, Captain,” said Sir Geoffrey. He turned to the leader of the newcomers. “Mr. Black? The captain’s loyalty is beyond question.”

“Yes, I was hasty. My apologies, Captain,” said Mr. Black, “but we need to requisition your ship for reasons of the utmost urgency, hence the regrettable lack of formality.”

“Are you from the government?” the captain snapped.

Mr. Black looked surprised. “The government? I am afraid not. Just between us, there is little of the government left at the moment, and what there is is mostly hiding in its cellars. No, to be honest with you, the government has always found it convenient not to know much about us, and I would advise you to do the same.”

“Oh, really? I was not born yesterday, you know—”

“No indeed, Captain, you were born forty-five years ago, the second son of Mr. and Mrs. Bertie Samson, and christened Lionel after your grandfather,” said Mr. Black, calmly lowering his package to the deck.

The captain hesitated again. That had sounded like the start of a threat; the fact that no actual threat followed made it, for some reason, quite discomfiting.

“Anyway, who do you work for?” he managed. “I like to know who I’m sailing with.”

Mr. Black straightened up. “As you wish. We are known as the Gentlemen of Last Resort. We serve the Crown. Does that help you?”

“But I thought the king was—” The captain stopped, not wanting to say the dreadful word.

“He is
dead
, Captain Samson. But the Crown itself is not. Let us say that we serve…a higher purpose? And to that purpose, Captain, I will tell you that your men will get four times their usual pay for this trip, plus ten guineas a day for every day under the record for the run to Port Mercia, plus a further one hundred guineas on their return. The promotion prospects for every man and officer on board will be much improved. You, Captain, will of course receive enhanced payments as befits your rank and, since we understand your plan is to retire shortly, the Crown will certainly wish to show its gratitude in the traditional way.”

Behind him, Sir Geoffrey spoke and coughed at the same time: “cough
knighthood
cough.”

“I’m sure Mrs. Samson would like that,” said Mr. Black.

It was like torture. Captain Samson had a mental picture of what would happen if Mrs. Samson ever found out that he had turned down the chance of her becoming
Lady
Samson. It didn’t bear thinking about. He stared at the man who called himself Mr. Black and said quietly: “Is something going to happen? Are you trying to prevent something?”

“Yes, Captain. War. The heir to the throne must set foot on English soil within nine months of the monarch’s death. It’s in the Magna Carta, down in the small print or, rather, the tiny writing. The barons didn’t want another Richard the Lionheart, you see. And regrettably, since an infected waiter served the soup at the king’s birthday party, the next two living heirs to the throne are both somewhere in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean. I believe you know it well, Captain?”

“Ah, I understand now! That’s what’s in those boxes,” said the captain, pointing. “It’s a load of English soil! We find him, he sets foot on it, and we all shout hurrah!”

Mr. Black smiled. “Well done, Captain! I am impressed! But, alas, that has already been thought of. There is a subclause, too. It stipulates that the English soil must be firmly attached to England. We may declare the succession overseas—even crown the man if necessary—but his presence
will
be required on English soil within the time period for full ratification.”

“You know, Mr. Black, I thought I knew all of the Magna Carta, but I’ve never heard of these clauses,” said Sir Geoffrey.

“No, sir,” said the Gentleman of Last Resort patiently. “That is because they are in the
ratified
version. You don’t think barons who could hardly write their names could come up with a complete set of sensible rules for the proper running of a large country for the rest of history, do you? Their clerks put together the full working Magna Carta a month later. It’s seventy times bigger, but it is foolproof. Unfortunately, the French have a copy.”

“Why?” asked the captain. Yet another coach had pulled up on the dockside. It looked expensive and had a crest painted on the door.

“Because if you don’t succeed in this enterprise, Captain, it will then be quite likely that a Frenchman will become king of England,” said Mr. Black.

“What?” shouted the captain, forgetting all about the new coach. “No one would stand for that!”

“Wonderful people, the French, wonderful people,” said Sir Geoffrey hurriedly, waving his hands. “Our allies in the recent unpleasantness in the Crimea and all that, but—”

“Oh, we are the best of chums with the French government on this one, sir,” said Mr. Black. “The last thing they want to see is a Frenchman on any throne, anywhere. It wouldn’t do for our Gallic brethren. There are those in France who do, though, and we think it would be a good thing for all concerned if our new monarch could be brought here with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of speed.”

“They killed the last king they had!” said Captain Samson, who wasn’t going to waste a good rage. “My father fought against ’em at Trafalgar! Can’t have that, sir, not at any price. I can speak for the men on that, sir! We’ll break the record again, sir, coming and going!” He looked around for Sir Geoffrey, but the chairman had hurried down the gangplank and was fussing around two veiled figures who had gotten out of the coach.

“Are they…women?” asked the captain as they swept up onto the
Cutty Wren
’s deck and went past him as if he were of no importance whatsoever.

Mr. Black shook some snow off his own veil. “The smaller one is a maid, and I take it on trust that she is a woman. The tall one, whom your chairman is so eager to please, is a major stockholder in your shipping line and, more importantly, is also the mother of the heir. She is a lady indeed, although my limited experience of her suggests that she is also a mixture of the warrior queen Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de’ Medici without the poisoned rings, and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun. Do not play cards with her, because she cheats like a Mississippi bustout dealer, keep sherry away from her, do everything she says, and we might all live.”

“Sharp tongue, eh?”

“Razor blade, Captain. On a lighter note, it is possible that en route we might catch up with the heir’s daughter, who thankfully was already well on the way to join her father before the plague struck. She is due to leave Cape Town today on the schooner
Sweet Judy
, bound for Port Mercia via Port Advent. The captain is Nathan Roberts. I believe you know him?”

“What, old ‘Hallelujah’ Roberts? Is he still afloat? Good man, mark you, one of the best, and the
Sweet Judy
is a very trim vessel. The girl is in safe hands, depend upon it.” The captain smiled. “I hope she likes hymns, though. I wonder if he still makes the crew do all their swearing into a barrel of water in the hold?”

“Keenly religious, is he?” asked Mr. Black as they headed toward the warmth of the main cabin.

“Just a tad, sir, just a tad.”

“In the case of Roberts, Captain, how big is a ‘tad’?”

Captain Samson grinned. “Oh, something about the size of Jerusalem….”

 

At the other end of the world the sea burned, the wind howled, and roaring night covered the face of the deep.

It takes an unusual man to make up a hymn in a hurry, but such a man was Captain Roberts. He knew every hymn in
The Antique and Contemporary Hymn Book
, and sang his way through them loudly and joyously when he was on watch, which had been one of the reasons for the mutiny.

And now, with the End of the World at hand, and the skies darkening at dawn, and the fires of Revelation raining down and setting the rigging ablaze, Captain Roberts tied himself to the ship’s wheel as the sea rose below him and felt the
Sweet Judy
lifted into the sky as if by some almighty hand.

There was thunder and lightning up there. Hail rattled off his hat. St. Elmo’s fire glowed on the tip of every mast and then crackled on the captain’s beard as he began to sing in a rich dark baritone. Every sailor knew the song: “
Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
” he bellowed into the storm, as the
Judy
balanced on the restless wave like a ballerina. “
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep Its own appointed limits keep
…”

How fast were they moving? he wondered as sails ripped and flapped away. The wave was as high as a church, but surely it was running faster than the wind! He could see small islands below, disappearing as the wave roared over them. This was no time to stop praising the Lord!


Oh hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea,
” he finished, and stopped and stared ahead.

There was something big and dark out there, coming closer very quickly. It would be impossible to steer around it. It was too big, and in any case the helm didn’t answer. He was holding it as an act of faith, to show God that he would not desert Him and hoped that in return God would not desert Captain Roberts. He swung the wheel as he began the next verse, and lightning illuminated a path across the restless wave—and there, in the light of the burning sky, was a gap, a valley or cleft in the wall of rock, like the miracle of the Red Sea, thought Captain Roberts, only, of course, the other way around.

BOOK: Nation
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