We are thrilled to share The Hole in Time, one of the fantastically funny short stories from The Time-Travelling Caveman – the final collection of the first stories Sir Terry Pratchett ever wrote. With illustrations by the amazing Mark Beech, coming in September.
THE HOLE IN TIME
One morning, at about half past eight, there was a giant bang from the Blackbury University Science Institute and all the clocks in the town suddenly stopped.
A dozen fire engines rushed up there, then wondered why they’d bothered. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong. A lot of people in white coats were rushing all over the place, but apart from that there was nothing out of the ordinary.
‘What’s going on here?’ asked the head of the institute, Mr Plinth, who had just arrived for work. He still had his mug of tea in his hand.
A woman in a white coat, wearing thick spectacles, rushed up. ‘Something terrible has happened!’ she gasped. ‘We’ve lost Doctor Hughes! And her laboratory! They’ve gone!’
‘Blown up, you mean?’ asked Mr Plinth, visibly shocked.
‘No, they’ve disappeared! Look.’ Dr Spectacles (for this was her name) pointed at what was actually just a patch of grass, next to the institute.
‘Looks like just a patch of grass to me,’ said Mr Plinth.
‘Well, there was a brick building standing there just a moment ago. Now it’s vanished.’ Mr Plinth scratched his head. Then he gingerly edged one of his boots onto the patch of grass where the brick building had been, while the laboratory workers stood around wondering whether he might vanish too. A few began to back away from Mr Plinth . . . and the patch of grass.
Then it started to snow. At least, it snowed on that little patch of ground. Mr Plinth stared up and saw grey clouds. He stepped off the grass and suddenly the sun was shining again. He stepped back onto the grass, and into a snowdrift.
‘This here ground has got its own weather,’ he said. ‘It’s in the middle of January there, by the looks of it, while everywhere else is in August.’
‘Ah, but which January—’ began a portly whitecoated man, who then stopped rather suddenly as Dr Spectacles gave him a chilly look that would have made it snow outside the patch of grass, as well as inside it.
Dr Spectacles thought for a moment, and then sighed and turned to Mr Plinth. ‘It’s going to have to come out sometime,’ she said. ‘You see, Dr Hughes was building a time machine, and I think it might have affected just this patch of ground. It might be January 1066 there, you see, while we are in August 2020.’
Mr Plinth looked back at the patch. Even without anyone inside it, the snow on the patch of ground was now more than ten centimetres deep, but it didn’t seem to be spilling out onto the rest of the surrounding grass. ‘I’m going to have to make a report about all this,’ he said gloomily.
‘I expect the doctor is wherever or whenever that bit of land is now,’ said Dr Spectacles. ‘I’m sure—’ She stopped, and stared at Mr Plinth, who was looking past her shoulder with an expression of utter surprise.
Dr Spectacles turned around slowly. There, on the patch of grass, was a great hairy mammoth standing in the snow, staring at her.
‘You don’t see many of them these days,’ said Mr Plinth, trying to keep the panic from his voice, while the mammoth stared at him. ‘What is it?’
The scientists started running away. ‘It’s a mammoth!’ gasped Dr Spectacles. There was a popping noise and the mammoth, Mr Plinth and Dr Spectacles all disappeared (at least as far as 2020 was concerned).
They found themselves standing on a low hill, covered in snow. ‘I’ve a nasty feeling we’ve gone back in time,’ said Dr Spectacles. ‘This feels like one of the Ice Ages.’ The mammoth sneezed, shook its head and wandered off towards a brick hut.
‘Well, that’s a bit modern, at least,’ said Mr Plinth, and they hurried towards it.
It was, of course, Dr Hughes’ laboratory, which had been blown back in time by the explosion. The doctor herself was sitting on the doorstep, mending a piece of machinery with a paperclip. She waved as the others approached.
‘Mind the mammoth! Well, what do you think of this, eh? This is Blackbury as it used to be thousands of years ago. My machine works!’
‘That’s all very well,’ said Mr Plinth. ‘But how do we get back?’
‘I rather think I’ve blown a hole in time,’ confessed Dr Hughes. ‘You’ll see what I mean – come inside.’
It was quite crowded in the laboratory. There was a caveman in animal skins, a Victorian lady doing a crossword, a man in armour playing noughts and crosses with a woman in Tudor dress, and many others from lots of different time periods. They all looked very similar to Dr Hughes.
‘I’m afraid these are my ancestors,’ she said. ‘And I don’t know what happened, but they just kind of turned up. And it’s rather embarrassing. But I think we’re stuck here. And I suspect I might have damaged the year 1209 when I went through it backwards. I can’t seem to get the machine to work the other way yet. Though the mammoth clearly managed it somehow. Now, how did you two get here?’
‘Just one of the side effects, I suppose,’ said Dr Spectacles. ‘I don’t fancy staying here – it’s freezing cold!’
She examined the time machine, which was bolted to the floor. The man in animal skins had pulled a bit off the machine and was trying to eat it. The rest of it was making a humming noise. Mr Plinth kicked the time machine experimentally. *
There was a green flash, the ancestors disappeared – so did the snow – and the laboratory, which felt momentarily like it had been flying through the air, landed with a bump. One of the dials said 2020.
‘You’ve done it!’ said Dr Hughes. ‘We’re back!’ Another dial said 3 August.
‘We’re back a few days before we left,’ said Dr Hughes. ‘I hope it doesn’t make any difference.’
They stepped out onto the ground around the outside of the Blackbury University Science Institute, and the first person they met was . . . Dr Hughes! The two Dr Hugheses stared at each other.
‘Did I not see your face in the mirror whilst I was brushing my teeth this morning?’ asked Dr Hughes.
‘You can’t be me,’ said the other Dr Hughes. ‘I’m me.’
‘You’re both you,’ said Dr Spectacles. ‘We’ve come back a few days early, Dr Hughes, so of course you haven’t gone yet. You’re still here. This person is you as you were two days ago.’
‘I’m lost,’ said Mr Plinth.
‘When you go back into the past you’re bound to meet yourself,’ said.Dr Spectacles patiently. ‘It stands to reason.’ While they were talking, another Dr Spectacles and another Mr Plinth walked round the corner – Plinth remembered that a few days before he’d paid a fire inspection visit to the Institute, and there he was.
All six stared at one another.
While the scientists were explaining about time travel, Plinth took his other self aside and spoke to him, which was a strange experience.
‘This is very tricky,’ he said.
‘You’re right,’ the other one replied. ‘What’s Mrs Plinth going to say when we both get home?’ They both shuddered.**
‘Of course, since you’re me as I was two days ago you won’t know about all this time machine business,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind telling you, it’s a nuisance.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I wonder what would happen if we tried to sort it out?’
They both entered the laboratory and examined the time machine. One of the Mr Plinths found where it was plugged into the wall. He gave a thumbs-up to the other Plinth, and unplugged it. There was another explosion, and one Plinth just had time to shake hands with the other before time caught up with itself. With the two scientists, he was carried forward to the present day.
They landed just a fraction of a second after they had first left, with all the laboratory workers fleeing from the mammoth, which was now no longer there – and the patch of ground had stopped being weird and snowy; it was now just an ordinary bit of grass.
‘No one’s going to believe a word we say about this,’ said Plinth. ‘I know I wouldn’t.’
‘Time is a very confusing thing,’ agreed Dr Spectacles. ‘Just think, if we’d gone back twenty years you would have met yourself as a teenager.’
‘I just hope neither of us tries any more time-travel experiments,’ said Dr Hughes. ‘The last thing I want is to meet myself again. I was rather boring!’
And they all agreed that the time machine should remain unused and unplugged. Well, at least until the next adventure . . .
*In Mr Plinth’s opinion, a tried and tested way of fixing any piece of machinery that had stopped working. Do not try this at home. Or don’t blame me if you do.
** Mrs Plinth was a very busy and rather formidable lady who did not appreciate another guest at the dinner table without at least two weeks’ notice, preferably in writing.