The working title is likely to be changed in the future.
Mother's Choice, Traces of Nuts, Net Weight and Cornstarch belong to me. I am indebted for their names to the gracious people on LJ.
I have nicked a line from Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. It should be obvious where it is. I mean it as Homage and not Plagiarism, and do not claim to have written it.
* * *
Walking Between Worlds
* * *
Cats walk between worlds. It's what gives them their dashing air of mystery, the impression they give of having some secret, unearthly wisdom. They prowl the edge of the world. They walk the line between darkness and light.
They know the best places for sushi in every universe that exists, and several that don't.
The reason why they get along so well in every universe is because cats understand the one secret of survival:
You can think and you can fight, but the world's always movin', and if you wanna stay ahead you gotta dance.
* * *
Islington was an angel with clipped wings, but it had one power left to it and that was the strength of its belief.
In nine cases out of ten, take an angel out of Heaven, and you've basically taken the angel out of the angel. A tiger remains a tiger even when it's eyeing the bars of a cage in a zoo. Swallows are birds whether they build their nests on rock or in gutters. Only humans and angels need their surroundings to be who they are. A human apart from other humans has only two ways to go: up or down. He can become something near Heaven, or he can become something worse than even the more malevolent sort of demon, but he can't stay human. People know this: it's why prophets travel alone in the desert, and Dark Lords don't rent flats.
With angels, the effect of banishment from their natural habitat -- i. e. around others of their kind -- is even more dramatic. The only thing that really separates an angel from a demon is the padlock on the gates of Heaven.
This was true of Lucifer and his hosts, and it was even true of a certain bibliophiliac angel who lived in Soho. It was not true of the Angel Islington, because it believed .
It believed that it was nice, and it believed it so strongly that the belief crept into its bones and shone out of its skin and convinced everyone who met it that it was nice. It believed that it was sane, and the belief made it sane, in everything except fact. Above all, it believed that it was an angel, to be revered as a messenger of God, and even though it no longer believed in God, its belief in its own angelic nature spread and infected other minds, so that its name in London Below was the Angel Islington, and all spoke of it with the awe due to an angel. Everyone knew Islington was an angel . . .
. . . Except for those who mattered.
So it lived in its caverns, alone in flickering darkness. Home was on the other side of the door, but still unimaginably far, and it had no light with it except for the fitful guttering of the candles.
It was the sort of thing that could drive even an angel mad, if Islington wasn't already mad.
It was certainly the sort of thing that would drive anyone to devising routes of escape, and this is what Islington did, singing softly to itself in the candles' glow.
Islington believed it could get home, and what Islington believed, it made true -- true enough, at least, for blood to flow; true enough to make the sewer folk happy.
Islington, you see, had gone the other way.
* * *
It was a bad business from beginning to end, but Crowley had to admit that good came of it, even so.
He didn't admit it happily. In Crowley's opinion, the fact that good came of it made it all worse. At least Aziraphale had something to write in his report and win him a few brownie points at the end of it -- Crowley knew for a fact that Aziraphale was saving up on official approval so that he could eventually request a raise in his allowance; he wanted to expand his bookshop. ("Ethically, Crowley, ethically," he said when Crowley suggested exacting a little divine justice on Intimate Books next door.)
Crowley, on the other hand, had ended up with nothing but several bruises, a distaste for wine that lasted for a month afterwards, and an awkward half hour explaining to his superiors what exactly had happened. He didn't see how that was fair.
The worst thing was, he couldn't even complain about it. Aziraphale had only been dragged into it when Crowley brought it to him, and the memory of this glittered in the angel's eye every time Crowley seemed about to mention the unfairness of it all.
It was, frankly, the most bloody annoying affair he'd ever had the misfortune to be involved in He couldn't remember being more relieved at the end of anything since that carpenter kid had finally gone off to Heaven, for positively the last time.
And really, really, you couldn't blame him, could you? It had all started so harmlessly. . . .
* * *
"Some yobs from under collared me yesterday," Crowley said, at the Ritz.
Aziraphale put the tips of his fingers together, like Sherlock Holmes, and frowned in what appeared to be deep thought. He seemed to come to a decision.
"I understood every word of that sentence, but the whole didn't seem to mean anything at all," he said, in a tone of grave wonder. He spoke with the deliberation of a lot of very good wine.
"Thing," said Crowley. He held up a finger. "Chaps. Shepherds. From under." He pointed the finger at the floor.
"From the basement?" said Aziraphale politely.
"No, from below."
"From London Below, you idiot," Crowley snapped, annoyed into sobriety. "Shepherds from Shepherd's Bush."
"Now we're getting somewhere," he said happily. "What did they do to you, then?"
"They wanted to talk to me," said Crowley.
"Oh, the poor things," said Aziraphale, with every sign of genuine sympathy. Crowley glared at him. Sometimes he thought Aziraphale pretended to himself to be more drunk than he actually was, just so he could be sarcastic at Crowley.
"I haven't been down there since the '30s," said Aziraphale conversationally. "Nasty place, I thought it."
"I'd have thought you'd like it," said Crowley. "Some of the places down there are almost as outdated as you are."
"It's so squalid," he said. "It's not my area, anyway. Haven't they got another of my people stationed down there?"
"Hell if I know," said Crowley. "If there is, he's not doing a very good job of it. The shepherds were complaining about a surfeit of corpses in their territory. Said the bodies are choking up the waterways."
"Dear me," he said weakly. "What's that got to do with you?"
Crowley looked uncomfortable.
"Well, the shepherds are sort of, they're under me," he said. "They're offshoots from--" He jabbed his finger downwards again, meaningfully.
Aziraphale seemed to have forgotten that he'd ingested enough alcohol in the past half hour to cause small explosions if somebody lit a match. He leaned forward, interested.
"I take it you don't mean they're descendants of bushmen," he said.
"You can't go around encouraging humans to commit acts of debauchery and fornication without some consequences," said Crowley. "Most demons aren't known for their self-restraint." He shrugged. "I'm supposed to keep an eye on the shepherds, make sure they don't mess with the status quo too much.
"Frankly," he added confidentially, "they're scary bastards. I leave them alone, most of the time."
"Why, what's wrong with them?" said Aziraphale.
"You mean, apart from the mix of demonic blood and human nastiness?"
Aziraphale wrinkled his forehead.
"Then why would they object to any -- unpleasantness of that sort?" he said. "I thought demons generally revel in corpses. Known for it, 's a matter of fact."
"The shepherds don't approve of that kind of crudity," said Crowley. "We're not talking about just any half-demons, you know. These are shepherds of men."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Ask sheep," said Crowley. "Anyway, if it does come to dead bodies, they prefer them to be of their own making. They're not. Somebody else has been killing people and dumping them into the sewers, and apparently now it's my problem."
"You poor thing," said Aziraphale vaguely.
"Not quite," said Crowley, and he grinned, as only someone who's had to take several centuries to train himself to look human can grin. Aziraphale sat up.
"No," he said. "Oh, no. I'm too busy--"
"It's your turn!" said Crowley.
"I already tempted that school teacher to stray from her profession last month!"
"And she became an artist and fulfilled all her childhood dreams!" Crowley poked Aziraphale in the arm with a fork. "Turn and turn about's fair play, angel. Besides, this is practically your job, right? You'd be stopping murders, smiting the wicked: that's the very definition of thwarting, isn't it? It'd positively be a sin to let me do it instead. Think about it. All those innocent lives you'd be saving. . . ."
Aziraphale looked like he was caught between a rock and a moral dilemma.
"I'm certain it isn't right to do favours for half-demons," he moaned.
"Forget about the shepherds. Just think of it as clearing up a crime," Crowley suggested. "Or sixteen."
"That's how many bodies the shepherds found," Crowley said. "They're getting a little tired of red meat, they said. Of course, there are probably more they didn't find. . . ."
Aziraphale had gone a kind of greenish colour. Then he straightened, pulling himself together.
"Well, now you put it that way, I see where my duty lies," he said.
"Good ma -- angel." Crowley beamed. He reached over the table and clasped Aziraphale's shoulder, giving it an approving shake before letting go. "Think how pleased your superiors will be."
"I doubt they will be," said Aziraphale. "They don't like to get involved with the world underground. Too close to . . . you know."
Crowley's smile had turned rather plastic.
"Yeah, I see," he said. He got up. "Well, mustn't keep you, I'm sure you've got loads to do, getting your affairs in order and making out your will and so on. . . ."
"Making out my -- why would I want to do that?"
"Don't you usually make out a will that bequeaths your bookshop to yourself before you die?"
"Yes, but why--" Light dawned. "Crowley, what have you let me in for?"
"Oh, don't worry," said Crowley. "You're probably right; maybe you won't get killed. I mean, there's no reason why you should die horribly the minute you set foot in London Below. Well, except for precedent, and precedent's nothing to a forward-looking angel like yourself--"
Crowley relented. He sat down beside Aziraphale, patting him on the shoulder.
"You said it yourself. It's your duty," he said. "Remember, if you're discorporated, all it means is a free ticket back home. You'll be up and about in no time."
"Only the time it takes to fill out the paperwork, you mean," said Aziraphale. "The last time I died, it was thirty years before I could return! They'd knocked down my bookshop when I got back! I had to recreate it out of a public house and half a hairdresser's!"
"Was that why you weren't around during the World Wars?" said Crowley, with interest. "I wondered why I didn't see you anywhere. I thought you'd have done something about Germany, at least." He stopped when he registered Aziraphale's expression.
"Look, I'm sorry, but it's your job," said Crowley. "I was serious about that part, at least. What do you think my bosses would say if they heard I was actually trying to prevent murder, even at the shepherds' request? I don't need any attention from down there after that business with the Apocalypse."
"All right," he said. "But you're going to help me."
"Secretly." Aziraphale tapped the table. "I need a guide in London Below. I meant it when I said I haven't been there since the '30s."
"It hasn't changed that much in the past sixty--"
"The 1430s, Crowley."
"Ah. Well, in that case . . ." Crowley sat wrapt in silent thought for a while. Then he leaned closer to Aziraphale. "I know these people, best guides in the Underground. They'll guide you for free if I ask."
"I hope I can pay for any services I require," said Aziraphale haughtily. "Who are these people, anyway?"
"They've got some weird name. Got to do with textiles. Oh, yes," said Crowley. "Velvets."
* * *
The tunnels were dark, damp, and smelled both peculiarly unpleasant and unpleasantly peculiar, but Maurice felt oddly at home. He put it down to the time he'd spent with the Clan. Spend enough time around rats, and soon "unpleasant-smelling" became just another synonym for "lunch-time."
"Are we there yet?" said Traces of Nuts for the third time.
Maurice let a few seconds tick past while the rats remembered that they were, when all was said and done, clinging to a cat.
"No, we're not there yet," he said, when he could feel the rats begin to tremble. "Sorry, I'm sure you travel to other universes every day using your special, you know, magical rat teleport powers, but I'm just a humble cat. I have to take the long way."
"Right, right," said Traces of Nuts, after a pause. "Sorry."
Maurice padded on, pretending to ignore the whispering on his back.
"I told you so! Now you've made him angry." That would be Mother's Choice -- the singularly penetrating quality of the voice was unmistakable. Mother's Choice had a voice made for saying "I told you so."
"What's he mean, a humble cat? I thought they said he was the Amazing Maurice. . . ."
"He was being sarcastic, Cornstarch."
"I didn't mean to make him mad! I just wanted to know. It's been ages since we started!"
"Since he started, you mean. I bet he's getting pretty tired of having four rats on his back by now."
There was a thoughtful silence.
"You mean . . . tired as in, sort of sleepy and not really feeling like doing much?" Cornstarch was an incorrigible optimist.
"I mean, tired as in maybe feeling like a bite."
There was another silence, somehow steeper in quality. Maurice wasn't sure if he felt relieved or annoyed. It was a matter of pride with him that the rats know he always asked before he bit, but then again, it was nice to have some peace and quiet after all that whispering. A little healthy terror never did small squeaking things any harm, Maurice thought.
He didn't know these particular rats very well. They were some of the younger rats, rats who were born after the emigration to Bad Blintz, rats who were used to living side-by-side with humans, or at least above-and-below. Mother's Choice had even gone to a human school (and graduated top of her class, her parents had told him, tearful with pride and nervousness about being around a cat). Taking them along had been Dangerous Beans's idea, of course. Maurice would never have ended up in a dark, unpleasant tunnel with a lot of annoying rats on his back if it hadn't been for Dangerous Beans and his ideas.
The problem with Dangerous Beans's ideas -- apart from the obvious problem of making Maurice cart stupid young rats around disgusting tunnels -- was that the ideas tended to spread. His ideas were infectious. They were particularly catching amongst the young.
So one day one of the younger rats, probably Net Weight or Traces of Nuts, they seemed exactly the sort of rats to say such things, one day one of them had said: do you think there are others like us out there, up in the sky? Thinking rats? On other worlds?
And, since Dangerous Beans's ideas had hit the younger generation of rats pretty hard, hardly anyone said: don't be an idiot. What a lot of rats had said, was: you know what, that's a very interesting idea! Why don't we go and find out?
That had led to the embarrassing incident with the moon machine, which had resulted in a small amount of scrap metal, several very angry pigeons, a hole in the roof of the Rathaus, and a severely displeased Town Council. Which, in turn, had led to the rats' asking Maurice for advice when he'd been visiting, taking a bit of a rest before his next adventure. The rats figured that Maurice, being a cat as well as a well-known adventurer, must know about things like other worlds. Cats knew things, they reasoned.
And Maurice had said, sleepily because they'd interrupted his sixth nap of the day,
"What, in the sky? Don't be stupid. There's nothing in the sky but stars and turtles. In other universes, now, there you could find some. Thinking rats are practic'lly a convention in some worlds."
"Maurice! Maurice," they'd said, when he'd shown signs of going back to sleep. "Maurice, do you know the way there?"
And because you don't admit to not knowing things if you're a cat, Maurice had said,
"Of course. Now bugger off."
He was really beginning to regret that "of course."
He hadn't been lying when he'd said it. Not exactly lying, not lying so much as -- not telling the whole truth. That wasn't lying, was it? He did know the way to other worlds. He'd never said he'd ever tried using the way.
But for some reason the rats had got the impression that he could leap from world to world like a, like a world-travelling mountain goat, and here he was, stuck somewhere under Uberwald with four rats clinging to him because otherwise they got lost down tunnels looking at interesting fungi -- fungi -- with only the vaguest idea of where he was going, all because of his kind heart and the huge bags of gold they'd offered him.
But mostly his kind heart. Bags of gold were all very well, but he was a cat, right, he had connections, he could get huge bags of gold any time he wanted. He could have refused the gold, although it would have been a bit of a wrench. Dangerous Beans with an idea, on the other hand. . . .
One day, thought Maurice, those little wobbly noses would be the death of him. And then they'd all be sorry.
His ears pricked up, and he stilled. He could feel the rats freeze in unison -- somebody, probably Cornstarch, was going ohnoohnoohno in a squeaky litany of terror. Maurice tuned him out.
Not here, but close, close enough to make the fur stand on his back. Maurice padded onward, sniffing.
Maurice almost turned and bolted; the only thing that stopped him was the thought of all those cheeping voices wanting to know where they were going, why they were going, and you mean you've been taking us the wrong way all along? Maurice was fairly hardened, even as street cats go, but he didn't think he could stand one of Mother's Choice patented Looks. He hadn't had one directed on him so far, because he was a relative stranger who was doing them a favour, but he'd been there when Cornstarch had said something unusually stupid even for him. The fallout had nearly burned his whiskers off.
It was only a bit of wall, probably the smallest portal to another universe that existed in the Discworld. No-one but a cat or a witch would have noticed it, and that only if the witch had been particularly observant and given to crawling around in sewers. But the smell and the look and -- the world was all squiggly, right there. Maurice felt his stomach turn. It smelled like the opposite of the way things should smell, and it was huge in an inside-out way that he really hadn't thought was possible but it was, he could feel it, and . . . he was going to have to go through it. . . .
"That doesn't sound very amazing to me," said Mother's Choice's voice in his head, and Maurice braced himself. He took a breath, lowered his head, and prepared to charge.
"Here we go, here we go, here we go!" squeaked Cornstarch.
Every muscle in Maurice's body tensed.
The silence was horrible, especially for the rats.
"Er," said Cornstarch.
"Are you quite finished?" said Maurice coldly.
"Yes," said Cornstarch.
"It makes no difference to me," said Maurice, apparently addressing the air. "I'm just getting ready for an interdimensional leap here. I don't mind losing a couple of legs on the way just 'cos I was distracted by some rodent shouting out of his natural youthful high spirits. The Accommodating Maurice, that's what they call me in Ankh-Morpork. 'Course, I can't guarantee any passengers I may or may not have won't suffer a bit of loss on the way, either, like maybe the sudden disappearance of what passed for their heads. I just thought you were attached to the bits of you that are still attached."
"We are," said Traces of Nuts meekly, after a pause.
"Fine, fine," said Maurice. "Just don't let me stop you from singing, that's all I'm saying. I like a bit of music while I and anybody who happens to be riding on me have our brains sucked out and spattered over every interdimensional portal on the Disc as a warning against excessive stupidity."
Maurice lowered his head, and shot through the portal into London Below.