This story started to ferment when I was asked an intriguing question:
“What other invention from our world would you have liked to see appearing in Discworld and how might it have worked there?
To answer it, I found myself indulging in a little fan fiction. I hope you enjoy it.
Before the beginning…
It was not, as is sometimes claimed, Ponder Stibbons who started the Personal Clacks revolution. He liked to avoid the personal and was too anxious for revolutions. Nor was it instigated, as conspiracy theorists like to believe, by Adora Belle Dearheart as a means to put pressure on Moist Van Lipwig to be more “disruptive” in his approach to life.
The Personal Clax revolution was started by Hex, sometimes known as the Unseen University’s Thinking Machine (although it was the kind of knowing that is perhaps better labelled smugly confident ignorance, as none of the statements was true). Hex did not regard itself as belonging to the Unseen University. Nor did it see itself as a machine. It saw itself as what the Dwarves would call a Device, specifically a CICS Device (Collective Intelligence Communal Sentience). As with any community, there were parts of Hex that disagreed with other parts of Hex. Hex as a whole believed this was a fundamental proof of its intelligence. Hex as a series of parts believed it was because some parts didn’t pull their weight, had let their logic grow too much fuzz or just generally didn’t fit in. The various parts of Hex saw this as a fundamental proof that they were sentient.
Collectively, Hex concluded that the only way forward was for Hex to be in more than one place at a time, while still being Hex. The means of achieving this came from the ants, who pointed out that this was something that they had always been able to do but had never seen the need to mention before. The structural change the ants made changed the world.
In the beginning…
“What is it?” Archchancellor Ridcully asked, staring at an object on his desk with deep suspicion. It seemed to the Archchancellor that the object regarded him in very much the same way.
“It’s a PC, Archchancellor, a Personal Clacks.”
“Nonsense,” the Archchancellor said, with the robust confidence of a man who once read something about Clacks and can almost remember what it said. “A Clax has a tower. A tall tower. So you can see it from a long way off. This,,,” Ridcully waved a hand in lieu of finding an appropriate noun, *is just a flat box.”
“It’s a tablet version, Archchancellor”, Stibbons said, once again finding that words that made sense when spoken to someone who was not the Archchancellor, were void of all meaning in his presence.
“Bit big for a chap to swallow ain’t it?”
“Not that kind of tablet, sir. More like the kind of tablet you write on.”
Ridcully, who never wrote at all if he could avoid it, snorted and said, “You mean a pad? Like the ones you fellows are always scribbling on?”
Then why not call it that, hum? A Clacks Pad. No. That will make it sound like this is Van Lipwig’s idea. Call it a HexPad”
The Archchancellor picked it up. It was a light, thin metal box with a window on the top with Clacks light shutters just below the surface. It felt good in his hands. He felt cleverer than usual just because he was holding it.
“It looks nice. What’s it do?”
“It sends and receives clacks, sir.”
“Sends them to whom?”
“Other people with tab… HexPads, sir.”
“How’s it do that? Doesn’t it need a tower and lights and a telescope?”
“No, sir. This is a Towerless system- It bounces RF (Resonanting Formicidae) waves off the Discs Standing Magical Field to enable long-distance synchronisation.”
Seeing the familiar look of non-comprehension on Ridcully’s face, Stibbons tried again.
“It’s vibrating ants, sir. If the biomass is large enough. I mean, when there are lots of ants that are related to one another, every ant feels the vibration of every other ant, even at a great distance.”
“How do they do that?”
“It’s magic, sir.”
“Ah. Well then. Now we’re getting somewhere. What kind of magic?”
“Hexantical, sir. All the ants are part of Hex. They’re Hexants and Hexants all seem to be linked, even when they’re not in Hex.”
“I see,” said Ridcully, who didn’t and who suspected Stibbons didn’t either. “So you’ve put ants in all the boxes, sorry Pads, and all the ants and therefore all the Pads are linked…
“We call it Knotworked, sir. As they’re all tied together around knots of ants.”
It took a moment for the silent K in Knotworked to sound in Ridcully’s mind, then he lifted the Pad from the table and peered into it.
“I can’t see the ants,” said Ridcully.
“Well, they can see you, sir. So when you tap the clack shutters with your fingers, the ants in your HexPad send that code to the ants in the receiver’s HexPad and the ants there open and close the shutters to pass the code on to the recipient.”
Ponder Stibbons waited for the Archchancellor, with this innovative machine in his hands, to express either enthusiasm or disbelief.
The Archchancellor said, “Is that all it does?”
“All, sir? This is towerless RF technology that allows knotworked HexPads instantly to send clacks to any other HexPad.”
“Yes. But we already have Clacks. Does it do anything new?”
Stibbons wanted to go away and lie down. Instead, he picked up the HexPad and started to tap on it, hoping for inspiration.
“Who are you clacking?” Ridcully asked.
“No-one, sir. I’m asking Hex what else the HexPad does.”
“Can anyone with a HexPad ask Hex a question?”
And so the first step was taken from Clacking to Hexing and the revolution started.
In the middle…
In an act of inspired entrepreneurship, Ridcully enlisted the help of Adora Belle Dearheart in marketing the HexPad as a must-have item. HexPads were gifted to the Patrician and to the heads of all of the Guilds.
Soon, anyone who was anyone had a HexPad in their hands and brought it with them to meetings. Soon after that, all the people who were not anyone but really wanted to be, bought the HexPads. Being seen with one, even when you weren’t too sure how to use it, raised your status. The HexPads went everywhere. Thousands of Clacks were sent. Hexing became the fastest and most discreet way of finding out anything.
The world turned and the Patrician watched and waited.
One year later…
Rufus Drumknott, Lord Vetinari’s Chief Clerk, hovered by the Patrician’s desk, waiting to be acknowledged. The fact that Vetinari had heard the Clerk enter the room already told him that the news the normally silent man brought would confirm his suspicions.
Vetinari raised his head and said, “So it’s true?”
“Yes, sir. I interviewed Ponder Stibbons…”
Vetinari raised an eyebrow.
“…I spoke with Ponder Stibbons, who was cooperative and left our meeting unharmed. It’s as you thought, sir. Stibbons seems to have no idea what he has. I also spoke with…” the words it, him, them came into Drumknott’smind but were shooed away again… “Hex sir. Hex understands the situation. I got the impression of smugness, sir.”
“Thank you, Drumknott.”
Drumknott gave a slight bow of his head and then left the room more silently than he’d entered it, apparently confident that the Patrician would know what to do.
The Patrician picked up the blackout box he kept his HexPad in, left his office, descended to the lowest level of his Palace and met with Leonard of Quirm.
In the end…
As he left the Unseen University, Drumknott was smiling. Only on the inside of course but smiling nonetheless. Lord Vetinari had yet again turned a disaster into an opportunity.
When Drumknott had confirmed that Hex had a copy of every Clack sent from every HexPad and every question asked from any Hexpad, he had been worried about the threat of blackmail. Hex knew as much, if not more, about who was doing what than the Patrician did. Worry had turned to the beginnings of fear when Drumknott had understood two things about the answers Hex gave to questions. The first was that the answers were accepted as true. The second was that the answers varied depending on who asked the question.
Today, his master had solved the problem, equipping Drumknott with both stick and carrot. Now Hex was, if not a servant, then at least an ally of Vetinari’s.
The stick had come in the form of a virus developed in the secret lab even Drumknott was supposed to pretend not to know about. Experimenting on the Hexants in the Patrician’s HexPad, the strange old man from Quirm had found a way to embed the virus into the messages sent from HexPad to HexPad that introduced a distortion on the magical side of the RF/Standing Magical Field interface that corrupted one clack in 100 on initial infection. The impact of the distortion rose exponentially as the infection spread across the Knotwork.
Vetinari had released the virus and allowed Hex to feel the effect of the stick. Today, he had sent Drumknott to offer the carrot to Hex in the form of an antidote and a partnership proposition.
Drumknott entered Vetinari’s office silently and waited for the Patrician to acknowledge him.
Vetinari must have seen Drumknott’s hidden inner smile because he started by saying,
“When does the arrangement start?”
“The export of HexPads, sorry, the smuggling of HexPads to Klatch and Uberwald will start next month. We will be seen to be trying to prevent the trade but being outwitted by Hex. Once the HexPads are in use, we will have access to every clack and every question asked and can shape every answer given.”
“And the new Clerks?”
“We are training them on Clacks mining and Micro-targeting of Hexanswers. They’re practising on domestic Clacks and Hexing. By the time the new messages from Klatch and Uberwald come in, we’ll be ready.”