And only now was there sound. It came from the darkness ahead, a slow beat that was ridiculously familiar, a heartbeat magnified a million times... ...tchum...tchum... ... each beat slower than mountains and bigger than worlds, dark and blood red. He heard a few more and then his fall slowed, stopped, and he began to soar back up through the sleeting light until a brightness ahead became a room. He had to remember all this! It was all so clear, once you saw it! So simple! So easy! He could see every part, how they interlocked, how they were made. And now it began to fade . Of course it was only a dream. He told himself that and was comforted by it. But he had gone to some lengths with this one, he had to admit. For example, there was a mug of tea steaming on the nearby workbench, and the sound of voices on the other side of the door... There was a knocking at the door. Jeremy wondered if the dream would end when the door was opened, and then the door disappeared and the knocking went on. It was coming from downstairs. The time was 6.47. Jeremy glanced at the alarm clocks to make sure they were right, then pulled his dressing gown around him and hurried downstairs. He opened the front door a crack. There was no one there. 'Nah, dahn 'ere, mister.' Someone lower down was a dwarf. 'Name of Clockson?' it said. 'Yes?' A clipboard was thrust through the gap. 'Sign 'ere, where it says “Sign 'Ere”. Thank you. Okay, lads...' Behind him, a couple of trolls tipped up a handcart. A large wooden crate crashed onto the cobbles. 'What is this?' said Jeremy. 'Express package,' said the dwarf, taking the clipboard. 'Come all the way from Uberwald. Must've cost someone a packet. Look at all them seals and stickers on it.'
'Can't you bring it in-?' Jeremy began, but the cart was already moving off, with the merry jingle and tinkle of fragile items.
It started to rain. Jeremy peered at the label on the crate. It was certainly addressed to him, in a neat round hand, and just above it was the seal with the double-headed bat of Uberwald. There was no other marking except, near the bottom, the words: THIS SIDE UP [?this text upside down] Then the crate started to swear. It was muffled, and in a foreign language, but all swearing has a certain international content. 'Er ... hello?' said Jeremy. The crate rocked, and landed on one of the long sides, with extra cursing. There was some thumping from inside, some louder swearing, and the crate teetered upright again with the alleged top the right way up. A piece of board slid aside and a crowbar dropped out and onto the street with a clang. The voice that had lately been swearing said, 'If you would be tho good?' Jeremy inserted the bar into a likely-looking crack, and pulled. The crate sprang apart. He dropped the bar. There was a... a creature inside. 'I don't know,' it said, pulling bits of packing material off itself. 'Eight bloody dayth with no problemth, and thothe idiotth get it wrong on the doorthtep.' It nodded at Jeremy. 'Good morning, thur. I thuppothe you are Mithter Jeremy?'
'My name ith Igor, thur. My credentialth, thur.' A hand like an industrial accident held together with stitches thrust a sheaf of papers towards Jeremy. He recoiled instinctively, and then felt embarrassed and took them. 'I think there has been a mistake,' he said. 'No, no mithtake,' said Igor, pulling a carpet bag out of the ruins of the crate. 'You need an athithtant. And when it cometh to athithtantth, you cannot go wrong with an Igor. Everyone knowth that. Could we go in out of the rain, thur? It maketh my kneeth rutht.'
'But I don't need an assist-' Jeremy began, but that was wrong, wasn't it? He just couldn't keep assistants. They always left within a week. 'Morning, sir!' said a cheery voice. Another cart had pulled up. This one was painted a gleaming, hygienic white and was full of milk churns, and had 'Ronald Soak, Dairyman' painted on the side. Distracted, Jeremy looked up at the beaming face of Mr Soak, who was holding a bottle of milk in each hand. 'One pint, squire, as per usual. And perhaps another one if you've got company?'
'Er, er, er ... yes, thank you.'
'And the yoghurt is particularly fine this week, squire,' said Mr Soak encouragingly. 'Er, er, I think not, Mr Soak.'
'Need any eggs, cream, butter, buttermilk or cheese?'
'Not as such, Mr Soak.'
'Right you are, then,' said Mr Soak, unabashed. 'See you tomorrow, then.'
'Er, yes,' said Jeremy, as the cart moved on. Mr Soak was a friend, which in Jeremy's limited social vocabulary meant 'someone I speak to once or twice a week'. He approved of the milkman, because he was regular and punctual and had the bottles at the doorstep every morning on the stroke of 7a.m. 'Er, er ... goodbye,' he said. He turned to Igor. 'How did you know I needed-' he tried. But the strange man had gone indoors, and a frantic Jeremy tracked him down in the workshop. 'Oh yeth, very nithe,' said Igor, who was taking it all in with the air of a connoisseur. 'Thatth a Turnball Mk3 micro-lathe, ithn't it? I thaw it in their catalogue. Very nithe indee-'
'I didn't ask anyone for an assistant!' said Jeremy. 'Who sent you?'
'We are Igorth, thur.'
'Yes, you said! Look, I don't-'
'No, thur. “We R Igorth”, thur. The organithathion, thur.'
'For plathementth, thur. You thee, thur, the thing ith ... an Igor often findth himthelf between marthterth through no fault of hith own, you thee. And on the other hand-'
'-you have two thumbs,' breathed Jeremy, who had just noticed and couldn't stop himself. 'Two on each hand.!'
'Oh, yeth thur, very handy,' said Igor, not even glancing down. 'On the other hand there ith no thortage of people wanting an Igor. Tho my Aunt Igorina runth our thelect little agenthy.'
'For ... lots of Igors?' said Jeremy. 'Oh, there'th a fair number of uth. We're a big family.' Igor handed Jeremy a card. He read:
We R Igors 'A Spare Hand When Needed' The Old Rathaus Bad Schüschein c-mail: Yethmarthter Uberwald Jeremy stared at the semaphore address. His normal ignorance of anything that wasn't to do with clocks did not apply here. He'd been quite interested in the new cross-continent semaphore system after hearing that it made quite a lot of use of clockwork mechanisms to speed up the message flow. So you could send a clacks message to hire an Igor? Well, that explained the speed, at least. 'Rathaus,' he said. 'That means something like a council hall, doesn't it?'
'Normally, thur ... normally,' said Igor reassuringly. 'Do you really have semaphore addresses in Uberwald?'
'Oh, yeth. We are ready to grathp the future with both handth, thur.'
'-and four thumbs-'