"+++Divide By Cucumber Error. Please Reinstall Universe And Reboot
+++" - Hex.
"Damn, damn, damn," Ponder muttered, and kicked
Hex's outer box.
"If you're going to do that, sir," one of the
younger students said, "why not go round the back and do a proper
Ponder glared at him—or was it a her? Since the
University had started allowing female students, using pronouns had become
infinitely more complicated. "This is my machine, young man, and I don't
need your advice."
From the look he received, the student was a little upset
about being called a young man. This impression was confirmed when she stuck her
chest out, allowing her robe to fall open. Ponder mentally shook his head.
Dressing like that shouldn't be allowed.
"If you don't mind me saying so, sir, things have
changed a lot since you started working on Hex," she said. "We're
using termites now, instead of the old-fashioned ants. And the integrated
picture imps are splendid, but they get very annoyed if you joggle them for no
This was, Ponder had to concede, true. Somewhere along the
line he'd stopped being the youngest member of staff; he'd lost touch with
changes in his own department; and the project they were currently working
on—linking Hex with the Library—was mostly incomprehensible to him.
The terribly embarrassing part, and the reason he'd not
requested a further explanation, was that the Librarian seemed to have
understood it all along.
He looked at the student. She flipped her hair back over
her shoulder, watching him carefully. After a moment, she volunteered,
"It's dinner time, sir."
Ponder nodded. That was something he did understand.
"I'll, err, be in the dining hall if you need me," he said, and
* * *
Ponder had reached his fifth course when the young women
who'd packed him off to dinner burst into the hall. "Excuse me," she
gasped out. "Professor Stibbons—we need…"
"Hang on one moment," boomed a voice from the
head of the table. Ponder, his student, and most of the rest turned to regard
the Archchancellor with a mixture of respect and fear—except for the Bursar,
who smiled politely at her and said, "Morning, Mr. Flowerpot."
"Who are you," Ridcully thundered, "to be
taking one of the Faculty away from his meal?"
"S-s-sorry, sir," she stuttered. "I'm… my
name is Gytha Ogg."
He looked at her, and she seemed to feel some sort of
explanation was needed. "After m-my grandmother, sir. My mother was Tracie
Ridcully nodded. "An Ogg, indeed. Well, I suppose
that's all right. Carry on, Mr. Stibbons."
Thus approved, Gytha hurried to Ponder's side, and explained in a rushed whisper, "It's Hex. It wants us to connect to the fireplace, and we think we know how, but we're not sure what's going to happen, and it's saying something about connecting the whole universe, and we thought we'd better have you there when whatever is going to happen happens. Sir."
Ponder took one final bite of chicken drumstick. "I'll come," he said. He cast a brief but forlorn glance at the rest of his loaded plate—but some ancient drive to understand the way things worked, and the knowledge that at UU there would always be another meal along soon, outweighed his desire to keep eating.
Gytha allowed him to precede her along the corridor.
* * *
The High Energy Magic building was swarming with people, at least in a certain sense of the word. There was a crowd in the centre of the room, consisting of about six students, most of whom Ponder recognised but couldn't name, one orang-utan, and a rather agitated computer.
The Librarian climbed down from the wall, and knuckled across to Ponder. "Ook," he said.
Ponder considered for a moment. "I don't see any harm in trying it—we've always been an experiment-orientated department. So long as we don't *light* the fire, I don't think we can damage anything."
On top of the computer, a group of termites changed rapidly from a solid blob to a flowing shape which spelt out semaphore signals. These were taken down by a series of picture imps on the 'printing combination' a meter away and put onto small sheets of paper, which then hung on the edge of the shelf.
Ponder frowned at them. "I didn't know we'd stopped using the handwriting machine," he said.
"We haven't, sir," one of the younger students explained. "Hex just uses this method for short messages with lots of abbreviations in. We call it imp-mail."
"Ah," Ponder said, nodding knowingly and trying to read the message spelt out.
HOOK ME UP 2 DA FIRE AN LIGHT IT B4 IT'S 2 L8 AN I KILL U. LOL.
"Um," said Ponder, a moment later. He took off his glasses, polished them quickly on the hem of his robe, and replaced them. "You'd, err, better do what it wants." He waved an airy hand to imply that he understood it all perfectly and why were they still standing around looking at him like that because *he* wasn't going to get his hands dirty.
The students moved into action. Ponder and the Librarian stood side-by-side, watching with interest, and, in one case, understanding.
* * *
One short sweep of the Moebius Curve of the universe away, another green-eyed man was polishing a round pair of glasses.
"Draco," he said, and sighed. "Come on. It's a day—another day, that's all. You've lived through thousands of them."
"That's exactly the problem, imbecile!" Draco snarled, and for a moment Harry could see that however long he lived and however grey his hair became, the sneering Draco Malfoy of school would never quite leave. He was obscurely glad of that. "I've lived through more than twenty-five thousand days, and none of them have ever been my seventieth birthday before!"
Harry looked at the angry man, sighed again, and sat down carefully on the sofa. Once, he would have flopped; these days, his back gave him too much trouble for that to be an option. "And it hasn't made you any nicer," he muttered under his breath, hoping that he was right about Draco getting a little deafer.
Not that Draco would ever admit it, but it did seem to be true. Draco wasn't really the sort who opted to ignore things, especially insults. "I'm fed up with this, Harry. Neither of us ever do anything interesting. You've got your friends, but they're dull. My friends are all dead, even the ones who survived the war. I never go out. I never do anything. Well, nothing interesting."
"You yell at me a lot," Harry said, bitterly. "Especially since we dealt with your mother."
"Don't mutter under your breath!" Draco snapped. Harry hadn't muttered—said it quietly, yes, but not muttered.
"YOU ARE GOING DEAF, YOU KNOW," he hollered.
"No, I am not," Draco returned.
"You are," Harry said, loudly though slightly more normally. "I said, you yell at me a lot!"
"Only when I'm upset!" Draco said.
"You're upset all the time!" Harry told him. Draco stamped his foot.
"That's what I've just been saying! You never listen to me!"
Harry sometimes imagined that living with Draco had a lot in common with having a teenage son—with one major difference: a teenage son would eventually stop being a teenager. Once, Harry had hoped that Draco would get past it, too; but at seventy, he showed no signs of ever doing so. Habit, Harry guessed. Draco was a creature of habit from start to finish, which was why they were still living in Malfoy Manor.
Draco was still shouting. "You don't listen to me! You don't care about how I feel! You don't love me!"
The first one, Harry had to admit, was probably true. Learning to tune out Draco's temper tantrums had been a fairly easily acquired skill after years with Dudley the drama queen. The other two, though… "I do care!" he said. "And I do love you. You know that."
"How should I? You never say so!"
"I just did," Harry pointed out utterly reasonably.
Draco looked like he was about to spit at him. "You never let me do what I want!"
"Not when it's hang-gliding, no," Harry said. That was a choice he thought he could defend fairly easily.
"You didn't let me kill that Weasley child when I had a chance!"
"No, of course I didn't," Harry said. He stayed calm. It would wind Draco up even further, but the more wound up he got, the more of this he'd get out, and the sooner this argument would be over.
"It was evil!"
"She spat a little on your robe, that's all." Ginny's daughter had only been a year old, and Harry felt such things were excusable at that age.
Draco didn't. "It's evil and ugly—it'll probably lead the next Dark Army!" he yelled.
"Now you're being silly," Harry said. "Look, Draco, when you've finished shouting, there are birthday presents for you to open."
"Don't want stupid birthday presents," Draco said sullenly. "They'll only remind me how old I am." His face said otherwise, though. Draco *liked* presents.
"They're piled up by the fireplace in the front room," Harry said. He got up slowly, and then offered his hand to Draco. "Shall we go through?"
Draco looked at him a moment, and asked, "Do you think she's really gone?"
Harry was taken aback for a moment, but then he realised: Narcissa. "Oh, you mother? Yes, she's gone, Draco."
"She put up quite a fight," Draco said. He sounded obscurely proud.
"Well, she's gone now. Okay?"
"Don't patronise me!" Draco snarled, his stormy grey eyes still filled with resentment and anger. "I won't stand for it!"
Harry shrugged. "Then don't. Come next door and have presents instead."
Draco stared at him, and then laughed. "Tell me, Harry, how did we reach seventy this healthy and clever?"
"Magic," Harry said. "Magic, bathing in milk once a week, and always being glad to see each other."
Draco took his hand, kissed him softly, and lead the way into the next room.
* * *
Half an hour later, Draco was opening his last present (given, grudgingly, by Sirius Tonks, eldest son of Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks, who had changed his name from Lupin to Tonks at sixteen in an attempt to refute his werewolf heritage, the first stage in a split in the wizarding community which had lasted from that time until Nymphadora's untimely death at the hands of Mad-Eye Moody, who had thought her suddenly dark hair and black eyes a sign of possession by Voldemort's ghost. Remus and his son had been reconciled at the funeral with a little help from Harry. Sirius Junior, as he was known, did not consider this ample reason to give gifts to Harry's significant other, but it was expected, and after his father's death he hadn't quite had the heart to stop)—when an orang-utan's face appeared in the fire.
"Ook," he said. Draco screeched a little, to which the orang-utan replied, "Eeek," in an eerily similar tone of voice, and then disappeared.
Draco looked at Harry. "Did an orang-utan just wish me happy birthday?" he asked, quite seriously.
Harry suddenly found that he couldn't stop laughing.
"What?" Draco asked, annoyed. "Share the joke, Harry, why don't you?"
Harry giggled some more, gasping for breath, and then replied, "I don't know, Draco. Have you got any orang friends?"
"No…" Draco said, thoughtfully. "Unless you count Goyle's son—he's even stupider than his father was…"
"I'm sorry about that," said another head in the fireplace, and Harry and Draco found themselves looking into a face which, to Draco's eyes, strongly resembled Harry of twenty years ago.
"Harry, I didn't know you had a twin," Draco said, but at the same time Harry was saying, "Neville… no. But nearly…"
Draco didn't like the mention of Neville. Longbottom had been haunting Harry's dreams and Draco's sex life for fifty years or more, and it wasn't good to have a reminder of the man Harry had loved and lost to war.
"Who are you?" he asked sharply of the apparition.
"Stibbons—Professor Ponder Stibbons," the head replied. Draco and Harry exchanged a glance, thinking, 'Gosh, we really have lost touch with Hogwarts, haven't we…' "As I say," Ponder went on, "I'm sorry to trouble you, but—could you tell me whereabouts on the Disc you are?"
The two old men on the sofa shared another meaningful glance, and Ponder wondered what he'd said wrong. "Just a general location will do," he said, thinking that maybe they were in hiding and didn't want their position known. "For academic uses only."
"Malfoy Manor," Draco said, still frowning.
Harry expanded, "Derbyshire."
Ponder's forehead wrinkled over his round glasses. "I'm sorry, I don't know where…"
"Tell us where you are, first," Harry said kindly. Draco kept his smile inside—trust Harry to be the typical Gryffindor, even confronted with a head in his fireplace who could (Draco nearly didn't put this thought into words, but decided he had to be brave) very nearly be his son, maybe even his son by… Neville's sister? Surely not Neville himself, that was impossible. No, Draco told himself firmly. Stop having silly thoughts in your old age.
"I'm in Ankh-Morpork—the Unseen University," Ponder replied promptly. "Or at least," he added, edges of scientific accuracy showing through, "my body from the shoulders down is in UU, in the High Energy Magic building."
Draco raised one eyebrow. "A magical university?" he said, incredulously.
Ponder nodded, a strange motion because it made his chin flicker in and out of sight. "We're a thriving community of lively minds and sated bodies," he told them, quoting from a recent edition of the prospectus (they hadn't liked the idea, but the Patrician, now well past the point when anyone else would have retired, had insisted), and then added "You're wizards?"
"Yeah," Harry said, and pulled his wand out. "See?"
Ponder stared at it. "That's… a little stick. Wizards have staffs." He poked the end of his own six-foot apple wood staff into the fire, displaying a foot and a half with a knob on the end.
"Mind's a wand," Harry said. "Yours is… a stick with a Christmas decoration on."
"Does it matter?" Draco asked. "We can do magic, you need our help."
"Well," Ponder said. "If you're willing…"
Draco looked at Harry, wondering how to phrase this. "Err… Harry, I think we might best be able to help Professor Stibbons if we were to pop through and find out exactly where he is."
Harry looked doubtful.
Ponder, on the other hand, looked suddenly hopeful. "You, err, know about this sort of thing?"
"Positive experts," Draco said confidently. "Don't you think we can spare an hour to help him out, Harry?"
Damn Draco, Harry thought. He knows too well how to make me
"Okay," he nodded. "Just an hour, though,
and then we're coming back."
Draco grinned, lizard-like. "High Energy Magic
Building, Unseen University, Ankh-Morpork, right?" he confirmed with
Ponder. "Well, get your head out the way, we're coming right through."
They had a short tug-of-war with the bowl of Floo powder, which Harry won. Then they were stepping into the flames, hand in hand, and saying, "Ankh-Morpork."
Stories Chapter Index Chapter Two