Moldan the Big of Bog awoke with a start; he had dreamt that he was a hundred; he was a hundred, that very day, which meant decision time.
Most Boggians lived to be at least a hundred and twenty. Every Boggian - not just the Bigs and the Lesses of Bog - had, on their hundredth birthdays, and for eight days thereafter, the option of entering a decelerator. This might kill them, or effectively take them back to their fiftieth birthdays. For the one and a half per cent who did not come out of the machines alive, death was sudden and apparently painless. Seventy four per cent of the ordinary citizens of Bog chose not to decelerate; but Moldan the Big was not an ordinary citizen. He was supreme ruler of his planet. He had, during the days of Steefax Draxy Mania, travelled the galaxy. He had negotiated trade and peace treaties with the likes of Kryptos and Ee-arth. He was big in name and in reputation. He was generally thought to be the very greatest of the Bigs of Bog.
Now, regarding the deceleration option, the standard advice given by the Citizens' Council was: 'First review your life. Do you like what you have already been through enough to want another seventy years of it? And even if you do like it enough, what about your family, friends, colleagues, and rivals? Would they want you hanging around for that long?'
Moldan's son, Harbottle the Less of Bog, was in his sixtieth year. If his father chose to decelerate it might be seventy years, after he himself had gone through a machine, before he could attain to the Bigness.
Ten years ago, at breakfast, whilst consuming his usual fare of bacon, eggs, sausage, mushrooms, black pudding, and fried bread, all washed down with a pint of strong, very sweet tea, Harbottle said to his father, "Have you thought about what I asked you last week?"
"No", his Bigness replied. "Neither do I mean to think about it."
"I do not mean to think about it now, boy!"
Harbottle always bristled and quivered when his father called him 'boy', which he always did when he wished to put him in his junior place. "I'll have time to think about it when I'm a hundred."
"Where does that leave me?"
"Waiting, that's what! Do you really think you'll be ready for Bigness in ten years time?"
"Im ready now!"
"What! You're an overfed, overweight ninny! You're a mother's boy. She's spoilt you rotten."
"That's not fair," complained the first lady of Bog.
"Oh, isn't it, my dear? Well, I've certainly had nothing to do with his diet."
"It's not fair calling him a ninny."
"He doesn't even know his thirteen times table!"
"That doesn't make him a ninny."
"Seven year olds know their thirteen times tables." Moldan turned back to his son. "Look, just tell me one thing you've ever done that justifies your heirdom to my fabled throne?"
"You've never given me a chance."
"Oh, really, boy? I made you Lord of the Outer Isles. You visted them once."
"It was the seasickness, father."
"I appointed you Overseer of Desert Affairs. You lasted a whole week, before crawling back complaining of heat stroke."
"That wasn't my fault."
"Finally, when I sent you as Ambassador to Ee-arth, you came back on the first available ship."
"They humiliated me. They said I was obese. Children laughed at me, pointed at me."
"You were obese. You still are. Look, it's up to your mother. See what she can do for you. Get her to get the chef to put you on a diet. Lose five stone, then ask me again."
"Five stone!" Harbottle wailed.
But Harbottle did lose five stone, in just over two years. He now actually justified the title of the Less of Bog!
"Father," Harbottle began as he ate his breakfast prunes and slimue, "I've done it! In fact, I reckon I could lose another half a stone."
"I knew you could do it if you tried."
"So, have you thought about...well, you know what?"
"Recite to me your thirteen times table."
"Recite it, boy!"
Poor Harbottle blushed the colour of the ketchup he used to pour all over his fry ups, and nervously began. He safely, if stutteringly, negotiated, "Three thirteens are thirty nine", before lurching into "Four thirteens are fifty three."
"Wrong! Hopeless! Pathetic!" screamed the Big.
Harbottle burst into tears, and fled the table and the room.
"That was cruel," rebuked the first lady.
"No, it was necessary, my dear. How will he ever be able to audit Bog's finances if he can't do a little simple arithmetic?"
"He won't need to. He'll have accountants."
"Whom he won't be capable of checking up on."
"No other Big of Bog but you has ever been the planet's bookkeeper."
"No other Big of Bog has been able to boast a balanced budget, year in and year out. Look, I'm sure Harbottle will succeed me some day, even if has to decelerate to do it. But I'm not prepared to step aside prematurely to make way for a semi-literate innumerate. Wife, you helped him with his weight; now see what you can do about his brains."
Eight year later, after much coaching by his mother and eminent professors, Harbottle actually managed to audit the annual accounts to his father's satisfaction.
"Well done, son" purred the father.
"Thank you, father," gurgled the son.
"Just in time," said the father, who was a week away from his hundredth birthday.
"May I ask, father?"
"You may, son. Youll have my answer a week today."
And there it was left.
"I am sorry, so very sorry, but I can't do it. I am a legend in Bog. I have been a legend in the galaxy. I owe it to history to continue. My son, you have become a fine figure of a man. You now have an excellent brain. One day you will be great Big of Bog. But not yet, not yet. Can you forgive me?"
"Father, I have already forgiven you. You have helped me transform my life, and I am grateful to you. When my time comes, I shall be ready."
The Big and the Less hugged the hug of those who have finally learnt to respect and love each other.
A week later, Moldan the Big of Bog entered a decelerator - and joined the one and half percent who had died suddenly and apparently painlessly.