THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has -- or rather had -- a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
This is not her story.
But it is the story of that terrible, stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.
It is also the story of a book, a book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- not an Earth book, never published on Earth, and until the terrible catastrophe occurred, never seen or even heard of by any Earthman. Nevertheless, a wholly remarkable book.
In fact, it was probably the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor -- of which no Earthman had ever heard either.
Not only is it a wholly remarkable book, it is also a highly successful one -- more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-three More Things to Do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Coluphids trilogy of philosophical blockbusters, Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who Is This God Person Anyway?
In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.
First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words DON'T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.
But the story of this terrible, stupid Thursday, the story of its extraordinary consequences, and the story of how these consequences are inextricably intertwined with this remarkable book begins very simply.
It begins with a house.
The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means -- it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.
The only person for whom the house was in any way special was Arthur Dent, and that was only because it happened to be the one he lived in. He had lived in it for about three years, ever since he had moved out of London because it made him nervous and irritable. He was about thirty as well, tall, dark-haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too -- most of his friends worked in advertising.
On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent's house for what was to be the last time.
It hadn't properly registered yet with Arthur that the council wanted to knock it down and build a bypass instead.
At eight o'clock on Thursday morning Arthur didn't feel very good. He woke up blearily, got up, wandered blearily round his room, opened a window, saw a bulldozer, found his slippers, and stomped off to the bathroom to wash.
Toothpaste on the brush -- so. Scrub.
Shaving mirror -- pointing at the ceiling. He adjusted it. For a moment it reflected a second bulldozer through the bathroom window. Properly adjusted, it reflected Arthur Dent's bristles. He shaved them off, washed, dried and stomped off to the kitchen to find something pleasant to put in his mouth.
Kettle, plug, fridge, milk, coffee. Yawn.
The word bulldozer wandered through his mind for a moment in search of something to connect with.
The bulldozer outside the kitchen window was quite a big one.
He stared at it.
"Yellow," he thought, and stomped off back to his bedroom to get dressed.
Passing the bathroom he stopped to drink a large glass of water, and another. He began to suspect that he was hung over. Why was he hung over? Had he been drinking the night before? He supposed that he must have been. He caught a glint in the shaving mirror. "Yellow," he thought, and stomped on to the bedroom.
He stood and thought. The pub, he thought. Oh dear, the pub. He vaguely remembered being angry, angry about something that seemed important. He'd been telling people about it, telling people about it at great length, he rather suspected: his clearest visual recollection was of glazed looks on other people's faces. Something about a new bypass he'd just found out about. It had been in the pipeline for months only no one seemed to have known about it. Ridiculous. He took a swig of water. It would sort itself out, he'd decided, no one wanted a bypass, the council didn't have a leg to stand on. It would sort itself out.
God, what a terrible hangover it had earned him though. He looked at himself in the wardrobe mirror. He stuck out his tongue. "Yellow," he thought. The word yellow wandered through his mind in search of something to connect with.
Fifteen seconds later he was out of the house and lying in front of a big yellow bulldozer that was advancing up his garden path.
Mr. L. Prosser was, as they say, only human. In other words he was a carbon-based bipedal lifeform descended from an ape. More specifically he was forty, fat and shabby and worked for the local council. Curiously enough, though he didn't know it, he was also a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernible Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in Mr. L. Prosser of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the tum and a predilection for little fur hats.
He was by no means a great warrior; in fact he was a nervous, worried man. Today he was particularly nervous and worried because something had gone seriously wrong with his job, which was to see that Arthur Dent's house got cleared out of the way before the day was out.
"Come off it, Mr. Dent," he said, "you can't win, you know. You can't lie in front of the bulldozer indefinitely." He tried to make his eyes blaze fiercely but they just wouldn't do it.
Arthur lay in the mud and squelched at him.
"I'm game," he said, "we'll see who rusts first."
"I'm afraid you're going to have to accept it," said Mr. Prosser, gripping his fur hat and rolling it round the top of his head; "this bypass has got to be built and it's going to be built!"
"First I've heard of it," said Arthur, "why's it got to be built?"
Mr. Prosser shook his finger at him for a bit, then stopped and put it away again.
"What do you mean, why's it got to be built?" he said. "It's a bypass. You've got to build bypasses."
Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what's so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what's so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.
Mr. Prosser wanted to be at point D. Point D wasn't anywhere in particular, it was just any convenient point a very long way from points A, B and C. He would have a nice little cottage at point D, with axes over the door, and spend a pleasant amount of time at point E, which would be the nearest pub to point D. His wife of course wanted climbing roses, but he wanted axes. He didn't know why -- he just liked axes. He flushed hotly under the derisive grins of the bulldozer drivers.
He shifted his weight from foot to foot, but it was equally uncomfortable on each. Obviously somebody had been appallingly incompetent and he hoped to God it wasn't him.
Mr. Prosser said, "You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time, you know."
"Appropriate time?" hooted Arthur. "Appropriate time? The first I knew about it was when a workman arrived at my home yesterday. I asked him if he'd come to clean to windows and he said no, he'd come to demolish the house. He didn't tell me straight away of course. Oh no. First he wiped a couple of windows and charged me a fiver. Then he told me."
"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."
"Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."
"But the plans were on display ..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a flashlight."
"Ah, well, the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice, didn't you?"
"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"
A cloud passed overhead. It cast a shadow over Arthur Dent as he lay propped up on his elbow in the cold mud. It cast a shadow over Arthur Dent's house. Mr. Prosser frowned at it.
"It's not as if it's a particularly nice house," he said.
"I'm sorry, but I happen to like it."
"You'll like the bypass."
"Oh, shut up," said Arthur Dent. "Shut up and go away, and take your bloody bypass with you. You haven't got a leg to stand on and you know it."
Mr. Prosser's mouth opened and closed a couple of times while his mind was for a moment filled with inexplicable but terribly attractive visions of Arthur Dent's house being consumed with fire and Arthur himself running screaming from the blazing ruin with at least three hefty spears protruding from his back. Mr. Prosser was often bothered with visions like these and they made him feel very nervous. He stuttered for a moment and then pulled himself together.
"Mr. Dent," he said.
"Hello? Yes?" said Arthur.
"Some factual information for you. Have you any idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you?"
"How much?" said Arthur.
"None at all," said Mr. Prosser, and stormed nervously off wondering why his brain was filled with a thousand hairy horsemen all shouting at him.
By a curious coincidence, "None at all" is exactly how much suspicion the ape-descendant Arthur Dent had that one of his closest friends was not descended from an ape, but was in fact from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he usually claimed.
Arthur Dent had never, ever suspected this.
This friend of his had first arrived on the planet Earth some fifteen Earth years previously, and he had worked hard to blend himself into Earth society -- with, it must be said, some success. For instance, he had spent those fifteen years pretending to be an out-of-work actor, which was plausible enough.
He had made one careless blunder though, because he had skimped a bit on his preparatory research. The information he had gathered had led him to choose the name "Ford Prefect" as being nicely inconspicuous.
He was not conspicuously tall, his features were striking but not conspicuously handsome. His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backward from the temples. His skin seemed to be pulled backward from the nose. There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was difficult to say what it was. Perhaps it was that his eyes didn't seem to blink often enough and when you talked to him for any length of time your eyes began involuntarily to water on his behalf. Perhaps it was that he smiled slightly too broadly and gave people the unnerving impression that he was about to go for their neck.
He struck most of the friends he had made on Earth as an eccentric, but a harmless one -- an unruly boozer with some oddish habits. For instance, he would often gate-crash university parties, get badly drunk and start making fun of any astrophysicists he could find till he got thrown out.
Sometimes he would get seized with oddly distracted moods and stare into the sky as if hypnotized until someone asked him what he was doing. Then he would start guiltily for a moment, relax and grin.
"Oh, just looking for flying saucers," he would joke, and everyone would laugh and ask him what sort of flying saucers he was looking for.
"Green ones!" he would reply with a wicked grin, laugh wildly for a moment and then suddenly lunge for the nearest bar and buy an enormous round of drinks.
Evenings like this usually ended badly. Ford would get out of his skull on whisky, huddle in a corner with some girl and explain to her in slurred phrases that honestly the color of the flying saucers didn't matter that much really.
Thereafter, staggering semiparalytic down the night streets, he would often ask passing policemen if they knew the way to Betelgeuse. The policemen would usually say something like, "Don't you think it's about time you went off home, sir?"
"I'm trying to, baby, I'm trying to," is what Ford invariably replied on these occasions.
In fact what he was really looking for when he stared distractedly into the sky was any kind of flying saucer at all. The reason he said green was that green was the traditional space livery of the Betelgeuse trading scouts.
Ford Prefect was desperate that any flying saucer at all would arrive soon because fifteen years was a long time to get stranded anywhere, particularly somewhere as mind-bogglingly dull as the Earth.
Ford wished that a flying saucer would arrive soon because he knew how to flag flying saucers down and get lifts from them. He knew how to see the Marvels of the Universe for less than thirty Altairian dollars a day.
In fact, Ford Prefect was a roving researcher for that wholly remarkable book, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Human beings are great adapters, and by lunchtime life in the environs of Arthur's house had settled into a steady routine. It was Arthur's accepted role to lie squelching in the mud making occasional demands to see his lawyer, his mother or a good book; it was Mr. Prosser's accepted role to tackle Arthur with the occasional new ploy such as the For the Public Good talk, or the March of Progress talk, the They Knocked My House Down Once You Know, Never Looked Back talk and various other cajoleries and threats; and it was the bulldozer drivers' accepted role to sit around drinking coffee and experimenting with union regulations to see how they could turn the situation to their financial advantage.
The Earth moved slowly in its diurnal course.
The sun was beginning to dry out the mud that Arthur lay in.
A shadow moved across him again.
"Hello, Arthur," said the shadow.
Arthur looked up and squinting into the sun was startled to see Ford Prefect standing above him.
"Ford! Hello, how are you?"
"Fine," said Ford, "look, are you busy?"
"Am I busy?" exclaimed Arthur. "Well, I've just got all these bulldozers and things to lie in front of because they'll knock my house down if I don't, but other than that ... well, no, not especially, why?"
They don't have sarcasm on Betelgeuse, and Ford Prefect often failed to notice it unless he was concentrating. He said, "Good, is there anywhere we can talk?"
"What?" said Arthur Dent.
For a few seconds Ford seemed to ignore him, and stared fixedly into the sky like a rabbit trying to get run over by a car. Then suddenly he squatted down beside Arthur.
"We've got to talk," he said urgently.
"Fine," said Arthur, "talk."
"And drink," said Ford. "It's vitally important that we talk and drink. Now. We'll go to the pub in the village."
He looked into the sky again, nervous, expectant.
"Look, don't you understand?" shouted Arthur. He pointed at Prosser. "That man wants to knock my house down!"
Ford glanced at him, puzzled.
"Well, he can do it while you're away, can't he?" he asked.
"But I don't want him to!"
"Look, what's the matter with you, Ford?" said Arthur.
"Nothing. Nothing's the matter. Listen to me -- I've got to tell you the most important thing you've ever heard. I've got to tell you now, and I've got to tell you in the saloon bar of the Horse and Groom."
"Because you're going to need a very stiff drink."
Ford stared at Arthur, and Arthur was astonished to find his will beginning to weaken. He didn't realize that this was because of an old drinking game that Ford learned to play in the hyperspace ports that served the madranite mining belts in the star system of Orion Beta.
The game was not unlike the Earth game called Indian wrestling, and was played like this:
Two contestants would sit either side of a table, with a glass in front of each of them.
Between them would be placed a bottle of Janx Spirit (as immortalized in that ancient Orion mining song, "Oh, don't give me none more of that OldJanx Spirit / No, don't you give me none more of that OldJanx Spirit / For my head will fly, my tongue will lie, my eyes will fry and I may die / Won't you pour me one more of that sinful Old Janx Spirit").
Each of the two contestants would then concentrate their will on the bottle and attempt to tip it and pour spirit into the glass of his opponent, who would then have to drink it.
The bottle would then be refilled. The game would be played again. And again.
Once you started to lose you would probably keep losing, because one of the effects of Janx Spirit is to depress telepsychic power.
As soon as a predetermined quantity had been consumed, the final loser would have to perform a forfeit, which was usually obscenely biological.
Ford Prefect usually played to lose.
Ford stared at Arthur, who began to think that perhaps he did want to go to the Horse and Groom after all.
"But what about my house ...?" he asked plaintively.
Ford looked across to Mr. Prosser, and suddenly a wicked thought struck him.
"He wants to knock your house down?"
"Yes, he wants to build ..."
"And he can't because you're lying in front of his bulldozer?"
"Yes, and ..."
"I'm sure we can come to some arrangement," said Ford. "Excuse me!" he shouted.
Mr. Prosser (who was arguing with a spokesman for the bulldozer drivers about whether or not Arthur Dent constituted a mental health hazard, and how much they should get paid if he did) looked around. He was surprised and slightly alarmed to see that Arthur had company.
"Yes? Hello?" he called. "Has Mr. Dent come to his senses yet?"
"Can we for the moment," called Ford, "assume that he hasn't?"
"Well?" sighed Mr. Prosser.
"And can we also assume," said Ford, "that he's going to be staying here all day?"
"So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?"
"Could be, could be ..."
"Well, if you're resigned to doing that anyway, you don't actually need him to lie here all the time do you?"
"You don't," said Ford patiently, "actually need him here."
Mr. Prosser thought about this.
"Well, no, not as such ..." he said, "not exactly need ..."
Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them wasn't making a lot of sense.
Ford said, "So if you would just like to take it as read that he's actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?"
Mr. Prosser thought it sounded perfectly potty.
"That sounds perfectly reasonable ..." he said in a reassuring tone of voice, wondering who he was trying to reassure.
"And if you want to pop off for a quick one yourself later on," said Ford, "we can always cover for you in return."
"Thank you very much," said Mr. Prosser, who no longer knew how to play this at all, "thank you very much, yes, that's very kind ..." He frowned, then smiled, then tried to do both at once, failed, grasped hold of his fur hat and rolled it fitfully round the top of his head. He could only assume that he had just won.
"So," continued Ford Prefect, "if you would just like to come over here and lie down ..."
"What?" said Mr. Prosser.
"Ah, I'm sorry," said Ford, "perhaps I hadn't made myself fully clear. Somebody's got to lie in front of the bulldozers, haven't they? Or there won't be anything to stop them driving into Mr. Dent's house, will there?"
"What?" said Mr. Prosser again.
"It's very simple," said Ford, "my client, Mr. Dent, says that he will stop lying here in the mud on the sole condition that you come and take over from him."
"What are you talking about?" said Arthur, but Ford nudged him with his shoe to be quiet.
"You want me," said Prosser, spelling out this new thought to himself, "to come and lie there ..."
"In front of the bulldozer?"
"Instead of Mr. Dent."
"In the mud."
"In, as you say, the mud."
As soon as Mr. Prosser realized that he was substantially the loser after all, it was as if a weight lifted itself off his shoulders: this was more like the world as he knew it. He sighed.
"In return for which you will take Mr. Dent with you down to the pub?"
"That's it," said Ford, "that's it exactly."
Mr. Prosser took a few nervous steps forward and stopped.
"Promise?" he said.
"Promise," said Ford. He turned to Arthur.
"Come on," he said to him, "get up and let the man lie down."
Arthur stood up, feeling as if he was in a dream.
Ford beckoned to Prosser, who sadly, awkwardly, sat down in the mud. He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it. The mud folded itself round his bottom and his arms and oozed into his shoes.
Ford looked at him severely.
"And no sneaky knocking Mr. Dent's house down while he's away, all right?" he said.
"The mere thought," growled Mr. Prosser, "hadn't even begun to speculate," he continued, settling himself back, "about the merest possibility of crossing my mind."
He saw the bulldozer drivers' union representative approaching and let his head sink back and closed his eyes. He was trying to marshal his arguments for proving that he did not now constitute a mental health hazard himself. He was far from certain about this -- his mind seemed to be full of noises, horses, smoke and the stench of blood. This always happened when he felt miserable or put upon, and he had never been able to explain it to himself. In a high dimension of which we know nothing, the mighty Khan bellowed with rage, but Mr. Prosser only trembled slightly and whimpered. He began to feel little pricks of water behind his eyelids. Bureaucratic cock-ups, angry men lying in mud, indecipherable strangers handing out inexplicable humiliation and an unidentified army of horsemen laughing at him in his head -- what a day.
What a day. Ford Prefect knew that it didn't matter a pair of dingo's kidneys whether Arthur's house got knocked down or not now.
Arthur remained very worried.
"But can we trust him?" he said.
"Myself I'd trust him to the end of the Earth," said Ford.
"Oh yes," said Arthur, "and how far's that?"
"About twelve minutes away," said Ford, "come on, I need a drink."
Here's what the Encyclopedia Galactica bas to say about alcohol. It says that alcohol is a colorless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars and also notes its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy also mentions alcohol. It says that the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
It says that the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.
The Guide also tells you on which planets the best Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters are mixed, how much you can expect to pay for one and what voluntary organizations exist to help you rehabilitate afterward.
The Guide even tells you how you can mix one yourself
Take the juice from one bottle of the 01' Janx Spirit, it says.
Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V -- Oh, that Santraginean seawater, it says. Oh, those Santraginean fish!
Allow three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzine is lost).
Allow four liters of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it, in memory of all those happy hikers who have died of pleasure in the Marshes of Fallia.
Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, redolent of all the heady odors of the dark Qualactin Zones, subtle, sweet and mystic.
Drop in the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolian Suns deep into the heart of the drink.
Add an olive.
Drink ... but ... very carefully ...
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sells rather better than the Encyclopedia Galactica.
"Six pints of bitter," said Ford Prefect to the barman of the Horse and Groom. "And quickly please, the world's about to end."
The barman of the Horse and Groom didn't deserve this sort of treatment; he was a dignified old man. He pushed his glasses up his nose and blinked at Ford Prefect. Ford ignored him and stared out the window, so the barman looked instead at Arthur, who shrugged helplessly and said nothing.
So the barman said, "Oh yes, sir? Nice weather for it," and started pulling pints.
He tried again. "Going to watch the match this afternoon then?"
Ford glanced round at him.
"No, no point," he said, and looked back out the window.
"What's that, foregone conclusion then, you reckon, sir?" said the barman. "Arsenal without a chance?"
"No no," said Ford, "it's just that the world's about to end."
"Oh yes, sir, so you said," said the barman, looking over his glasses this time at Arthur. "Lucky escape for Arsenal if it did."
Ford looked back at him, genuinely surprised.
"No, not really," he said. He frowned.
The barman breathed in heavily. "There you are, sir, six pints," he said.
Arthur smiled at him wanly and shrugged again. He turned and smiled wanly at the rest of the pub just in case any of them had heard what was going on.
None of them had, and none of them could understand what he was smiling at them for.
A man sitting next to Ford at the bar looked at the two men, looked at the six pints, did a swift burst of mental arithmetic, arrived at an answer he liked and grinned a stupid hopeful grin at them.
"Get off," said Ford, "they're ours," giving him a look that would have made an Algolian Suntiger get on with what it was doing.
Ford slapped a five-pound note on the bar. He said, "Keep the change."
"What, from a fiver? Thank you, sir."
"You've got ten minutes left to spend it."
The barman decided simply to walk away for a bit.
"Ford," said Arthur, "would you please tell me what the hell is going on?"
"Drink up," said Ford, "you've got three pints to get through."
"Three pints?" said Arthur. "At lunchtime?"
The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."
"Very deep," said Arthur, "you should send that in to the Readers Digest. They've got a page for people like you."
"Why three pints all of a sudden?"
"Muscle relaxant, you'll need it."
Arthur stared into his beer.
"Did I do anything wrong today," he said, "or has the world always been like this and I've been too wrapped up in myself to notice?"
"All right," said Ford, "I'll try to explain. How long have we known each other?"
"How long?" Arthur thought. "Er, about five years, maybe six," he said. "Most of it seemed to make some kind of sense at the time."
"All right," said Ford. "How would you react if I said that I'm not from Guildford after all, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse?"
Arthur shrugged in a so-so sort of way.
"I don't know," he said, taking a pull of beer. "Why, do you think it's the sort of thing you're likely to say?"
Ford gave up. It really wasn't worth bothering at the moment, what with the world being about to end. He just said, "Drink up."
He added, perfectly factually, "The world's about to end."
Arthur gave the rest of the pub another wan smile. The rest of the pub frowned at him. A man waved at him to stop smiling at them and mind his own business.
"This must be Thursday," said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. "I never could get the hang of Thursdays."
On this particular Thursday, something was moving quietly through the ionosphere many miles above the surface of the planet; several somethings in fact, several dozen huge yellow chunky slablike somethings, huge as office blocks, silent as birds. They soared with ease, basking in electromagnetic rays from the star Sol, biding their time, grouping, preparing.
The planet beneath them was almost perfectly oblivious of their presence, which was just how they wanted it for the moment. The huge yellow somethings went unnoticed at Goonhilly, they passed over Cape Canaveral without a blip, Woomera and Jodrell Bank looked straight through them, which was a pity because it was exactly the sort of thing they'd been looking for all these years.
The only place they registered at all was on a small black device called a Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic which winked away quietly to itself. It nestled in the darkness inside a leather satchel which Ford Prefect habitually wore slung around his neck. The contents of Ford Prefect's satchel were quite interesting in fact and would have made any Earth physicist's eyes pop out of his head, which is why he always concealed them by keeping a couple of dogeared scripts for plays he pretended, he was auditioning for stuffed in the top. Besides the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic and the scripts he had an Electronic Thumb -- a short squat black rod, smooth and matt with a couple of flat switches and dials at one end; he also had a device that looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which anyone of a million "pages" could be summoned at a moment's notice. It looked insanely complicated, and this was one of the reasons why the snug plastic cover it fitted into had the words DON'T PANIC printed on it in large friendly letters. The other reason was that this device was in fact that most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.
Beneath that in Ford Prefect's satchel were a few ballpoints, a notepad and a largish bath towel from Marks and Spencer.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels.
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the beady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can It see it, it can It see you -- daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that be is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have lost. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is." (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)
Nestling quietly on top of the towel in Ford Prefect's satchel, the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic began to wink more quickly. Miles above the surface of the planet the huge yellow somethings began to fan out. At Jodrell Bank, someone decided it was time for a nice relaxing cup of tea.
"You got a towel with you?" said Ford suddenly to Arthur.
Arthur, struggling through his third pint, looked round at him.
"Why? What, no ... should I have?" He had given up being surprised, there didn't seem to be any point any longer.
Ford clicked his tongue in irritation.
"Drink up," he urged.
At that moment the dull sound of a rumbling crash from outside filtered through the low murmur of the pub, through the sound of the jukebox, through the sound of the man next to Ford hiccupping over the whisky Ford had eventually bought him.
Arthur choked on his beer, leaped to his feet.
"What's that?" he yelped.
"Don't worry," said Ford, "they haven't started yet."
"Thank God for that," said Arthur, and relaxed.
"It's probably just your house being knocked down," said Ford, downing his last pint.
"What?" shouted Arthur. Suddenly Ford's spell was broken. Arthur looked wildly around him and ran to the window.
"My God, they are! They're knocking my house down. What the hell am I doing in the pub, Ford?"
"It hardly makes any difference at this stage," said Ford, "let them have their fun."
"Fun?" yelped Arthur. "Fun!" He quickly checked out the window again that they were talking about the same thing.
"Damn their fun!" he hooted, and ran out of the pub furiously waving a nearly empty beer glass. He made no friends at all in the pub that lunchtime.
"Stop, you vandals! You home wreckers!" bawled Arthur. "You half crazed Visigoths, stop, will you!"
Ford would have to go after him. Turning quickly to the barman he asked for four packets of peanuts.
"There you are, sir," said the barman, slapping the packets on the bar, "twenty-eight pence if you'd be so kind."
Ford was very kind -- he gave the barman another five-pound note and told him to keep the change. The barman looked at it and then looked at Ford. He suddenly shivered: he experienced a momentary sensation that he didn't understand because no one on Earth had ever experienced it before. In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth. On Earth it is never possible to be farther than sixteen thousand miles from your birthplace, which really isn't very far, so such signals are too minute to be noticed. Ford Prefect was at this moment under great stress, and he was born six hundred light-years away in the near vicinity of Betelgeuse.
The barman reeled for a moment, hit by a shocking, incomprehensible sense of distance. He didn't know what it meant, but he looked at Ford Prefect with a new sense of respect, almost awe.
"Are you serious, sir?" he said in a small whisper which had the effect of silencing the pub. "You think the world's going to end?"
"Yes," said Ford.
"But, this afternoon."
Ford had recovered himself. He was at his flippest.
"Yes," he said gaily, "in less than two minutes I would estimate."
The barman couldn't believe this conversation he was having, but he couldn't believe the sensation he had just had either.
"Isn't there anything we can do about it then?" he said.
"No, nothing," said Ford, stuffing the peanuts into his pocket.
Someone in the hushed bar suddenly laughed raucously at how stupid everyone had become.
The man sitting next to Ford was a bit sozzled by now. His eyes weaved their way up to Ford.
"I thought," he said, "that if the world was going to end we were meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something."
"If you like, yes," said Ford.
"That's what they told us in the army," said the man, and his eyes began the long trek back toward his whisky.
"Will that help?" asked the barman.
"No," said Ford, and gave him a friendly smile. "Excuse me," he said, "I've got to go." With a wave, he left.
The pub was silent for a moment longer and then, embarrassingly enough, the man with the raucous laugh did it again. The girl he had dragged along to the pub with him had grown to loathe him dearly over the last hour, and it would probably have been a great satisfaction to her to know that in a minute and a half or so he would suddenly evaporate into a whiff of hydrogen, ozone and carbon monoxide. However, when the moment came she would be too busy evaporating herself to notice it.
The barman cleared his throat. He heard himself say, "Last orders, please."
The huge yellow machines began to sink downward and to move faster.
Ford knew they were there. This wasn't the way he had wanted it.
Running up the lane, Arthur had nearly reached his house. He didn't notice how cold it had suddenly become, he didn't notice the wind, he didn't notice the sudden irrational squall of rain. He didn't notice anything but the caterpillar bulldozers crawling over the rubble that had been his home.
"You barbarians!" he yelled. "I'll sue the council for every penny it's got! I'll have you hung, drawn and quartered! And whipped! And boiled ... until ... until ... until you've had enough."
Ford was running after him very fast. Very very fast.
"And then I will do it again!" yelled Arthur. " And when I've finished I will take all the little bits, and I will jump on them!"
Arthur didn't notice that the men were running from the bulldozers; he didn't notice that Mr. Prosser was staring hectically into the sky. What Mr. Prosser had noticed was that huge yellow somethings were screaming through the clouds. Impossibly huge yellow somethings.
"And I will carry on jumping on them," yelled Arthur, still running, "until I get blisters, or I can think of anything even more unpleasant to do, and then ..."
Arthur tripped, and fell headlong, rolled and landed flat on his back. At last he noticed that something was going on. His finger shot upward.
"What the hell's that?" he shrieked.
Whatever it was raced across the sky in its monstrous yellowness, tore the sky apart with mind-boggling noise and leaped off into the distance leaving the gaping air to shut behind it with a bang that drove your ears six feet into your skull.
Another one followed and did exactly the same thing only louder.
It's difficult to say exactly what the people on the surface of the planet were doing now, because they didn't really know what they were doing themselves. None of it made a lot of sense -- running into houses, running out of houses, howling noiselessly at the noise. All around the world city streets exploded with people, cars skidded into each other as the noise fell on them and then rolled off like a tidal wave over hills and valleys, deserts and oceans, seeming to flatten everything it hit.
Only one man stood and watched the sky, stood with terrible sadness in his eyes and rubber bungs in his ears. He knew exactly what was happening and had known ever since his Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic had started winking in the dead of night beside his pillow and wakened him with a start. It was what he had waited for all these years, but when he had deciphered the signal pattern sitting alone in his small dark room, a coldness had gripped him and squeezed his heart. Of all the races in all of the Galaxy who could have come and said a big hello to planet Earth, he thought, didn't it just have to be the Vogons.
Still, he knew what he had to do. As the Vogon craft screamed through the air high above him he opened his satchel. He threw away a copy of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he threw away a copy of Godspell: he wouldn't need them where he was going. Everything was ready, everything was prepared.
He knew where his towel was.
A sudden silence hit the Earth. If anything it was worse than the noise. For a while nothing happened.
The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.
And still nothing happened.
Then there was a slight whisper, a sudden spacious whisper of open ambient sound. Every hi-fi set in the world, every radio, every television, every cassette recorder, every woofer, every tweeter, every mid-range driver in the world quietly turned itself on.
Every tin can, every dustbin, every window, every car, every wineglass, every sheet of rusty metal became activated as an acoustically perfect sounding board.
Before the Earth passed away it was going to be treated to the very ultimate in sound reproduction, the greatest public address system ever built. But there was no concert, no music, no fanfare, just a simple message.
"People of Earth, your attention, please," a voice said, and it was wonderful. Wonderful perfect quadrophonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.
"This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council," the voice continued. "As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you."
The PA died away.
Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. The terror moved slowly through the gathered crowds as if they were iron filings on a sheet of board and a magnet was moving beneath them. Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to.
Observing this, the Vogons turned on their PA again. It said:
"There's no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now."
The PA fell silent again and its echo drifted across the land. The huge ships turned slowly in the sky with easy power. On the underside of each a hatchway opened, an empty black square.
By this time somebody somewhere must have manned a radio transmitter, located a wavelength and broadcast a message back to the Vogon ships, to plead on behalf of the planet. Nobody ever heard what they said, they only heard the reply. The PA slammed back into life again. The voice was annoyed. It said:
"What do you mean, you've never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven's sake, mankind, it's only four light-years away, you know. I'm sorry, but if you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that's your own lookout.
"Energize the demolition beams."
Light poured out of the hatchways.
"I don't know," said the voice on the PA, "apathetic bloody planet, I've no sympathy at all." It cut off.
There was a terrible ghastly silence.
There was a terrible ghastly noise.
There was a terrible ghastly silence.
The Vogon Constructor Fleet coasted away into the inky starry void.
Far away on the opposite spiral arm of the Galaxy. five hundred thousand light-years from the star Sol, Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Imperial Galactic Government, sped across the seas of Damogran, his ion drive delta boat winking and flashing in the Damogran sun.
Damogran the hot; Damogran the remote; Damogran the almost totally unheard of.
Damogran, secret home of the Heart of Gold.
The boat sped on across the water. It would be some time before it reached its destination because Damogran is such an inconveniently arranged planet. It consists of nothing but middling to large desert islands separated by very pretty but annoyingly wide stretches of ocean.
The boat sped on.
Because of this topographical awkwardness Damogran has always remained a deserted planet. This is why the Imperial Galactic Government chose Damogran for the Heart of Gold project, because it was so deserted and the Heart of Gold project was so secret.
The boat zipped and skipped across the sea, the sea that lay between the main islands of the only archipelago of any useful size on the whole planet. Zaphod Beeblebrox was on his way from the tiny spaceport on Easter Island (the name was an entirely meaningless coincidence -- in Galactic-speke, easter means small, flat and light-brown) to the Heart of Gold Island, which by another meaningless coincidence was called France.
One of the side effects of work on the Heart of Gold was a whole string of pretty meaningless coincidences.
But it was not in any way a coincidence that today, the day of culmination of the project. the great day of unveiling, the day that the Heart of Gold was finally to be introduced to a marveling Galaxy, was also a great day of culmination for Zaphod Beeblebrox. It was for the sake of this day that he had first decided to run for the presidency, a decision that had sent shock waves of astonishment throughout the Imperial Galaxy. Zaphod Beeblebrox? President? Not the Zaphod Beeblebrox? Not the President? Many had seen it as clinching proof that the whole of known creation had finally gone bananas.
Zaphod grinned and gave the boat an extra kick of speed.
Zaphod Beeblebrox, adventurer, ex-hippie, good-timer (crook? quite possibly), manic self-publicist, terrible bad at personal relationships, often thought to be completely out to lunch.
No one had gone bananas, not in that way at least.
Only six people in the entire Galaxy understood the principle on which the Galaxy was governed, and they knew that once Zaphod Beeblebrox had announced his intention to run as President it was more or less a fait accompli: he was ideal presidency fodder.*
What they completely failed to understand was why Zaphod was doing it.
He banked sharply, shooting a wild wall of water at the sun.
Today was the day; today was the day when they would realize what Zaphod had been up to. Today was what Zaphod Beeblebrox's presidency was all about. Today was also his two-hundredth birthday, but that was just another meaningless coincidence.
As he skipped his boat across the seas of Damogran he smiled quietly to himself about what a wonderful, exciting day it was going to be. He relaxed and spread his two arms lazily along the seat back. He steered with an extra arm he'd recently had fitted just beneath his right one to help improve his ski-boxing.
* President: full title President of the Imperial Galactic Government.
The term Imperial is kept though it is now an anachronism. The hereditary Emperor is nearly dead and has been for many centuries. In the last moments of his dying coma he was locked in a stasis field which keeps him in a state of perpetual unchangingness. All his heirs are now long dead, and this means that without any drastic political upheaval, power has simply and effectively moved a rung or two down the ladder, and is now seen to be vested in a body that used to act simply as advisers to the Emperor -- an elected governmental assembly headed by a President elected by that assembly. In fact it vests in no such place.
The President in particular is very much a figurehead -- he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. On those criteria Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the most successful Presidents the Galaxy has ever had -- he has already spent two of his ten presidential years in prison for fraud. Very very few people realize that the President and the Government have virtually no power at all, and of these few people only six know whence ultimate political power is wielded. Most of the others secretly believe that the ultimate decision-making process is handled by a computer. They couldn't be more wrong.
"Hey," he cooed to himself, "you're a real cool boy, you." But his nerves sang a song shriller than a dog whistle.
The island of France was about twenty miles long, five miles across the middle, sandy and crescent-shaped. In fact, it seemed to exist not so much as an island in its own right as simply a means of defining the sweep and curve of a huge bay. This impression was heightened by the fact that the inner coastline of the crescent consisted almost entirely of steep cliffs. From the top of the cliff the land sloped slowly down five miles to the opposite shore.
On top of the cliffs stood a reception committee.
It consisted in large part of the engineers and researchers who had built the Heart of Gold -- mostly humanoid, but here and there were a few reptiloid atomineers, two or three green sylphlike maximegalaticians, an octopodic physucturalist or two and a Hooloovoo (a Hooloovoo is a superintelligent shade of the color blue). All except the Hooloovoo were resplendent in their multicolored ceremonial lab coats; the Hooloovoo had been temporarily refracted into a free-standing prism for the occasion.
There was a mood of immense excitement thrilling through all of them. Together and between them they had gone to and beyond the furthest limits of physical laws, restructured the fundamental fabric of matter, strained, twisted and broken the laws of possibility and impossibility, but still the greatest excitement of all seemed to be to meet a man with an orange sash round his neck. (An orange sash was what the President of the Galaxy traditionally wore.) It might not even have made much difference to them if they'd known exactly how much power the President of the Galaxy actually wielded: none at all. Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of the Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it.
Zaphod Beeblebrox was amazingly good at his job.
The crowd gasped, dazzled by sun and seamanship, as the presidential speedboat zipped round the headland into the bay. It flashed and shone as it came skating over the sea in wide skidding turns.
In fact, it didn't need to touch the water at all, because it was supported on a hazy cushion of ionized atoms, but just for effect it was fitted with thin fin blades which could be lowered into the water. They slashed sheets of water hissing into the air, carved deep gashes in the sea which swayed crazily and sank back foaming in the boat's wake as it careered across the bay.
Zaphod loved effect: it was what he was best at.
He twisted the wheel sharply, the boat skidded round in a wild scything skid beneath the cliff face and dropped to rest lightly on the rocking waves.
Within seconds he ran out onto the deck and waved and grinned at over three billion people. The three billion people weren't actually there, but they watched his every gesture through the eyes of a small robot tri-D camera which hovered obsequiously in the air nearby. The antics of the President always made amazingly popular tri-D: that's what they were for.
He grinned again. Three billion and six people didn't know it, but today would be a bigger antic than anyone had bargained for.
The robot camera homed in for a close-up on the more popular of his two heads and he waved again. He was roughly humanoid in appearance except for the extra head and third arm. His fair tousled hair stuck out in random directions, his blue eyes glinted with something completely unidentifiable, and his chins were almost always unshaven.
A twenty-foot-high transparent globe floated next to his boat, rolling and bobbing, glistening in the brilliant sun. Inside it floated a wide semicircular sofa upholstered in glorious red leather: the more the globe bobbed and rolled, the more the sofa stayed perfectly still, steady as an upholstered rock. Again, all done for effect as much as anything.
Zaphod stepped through the wall of the globe and relaxed on the sofa. He spread his two arms along the back and with the third brushed some dust off his knee. His heads looked about, smiling; he put his feet up. At any moment, he thought, he might scream.
Water boiled up beneath the bubble, it seethed and spouted. The bubble surged into the air, bobbing and rolling on the water spout. Up, up it climbed, throwing stilts of light at the cliff. Up it surged on the jet, the water falling from beneath it, crashing back into the sea hundreds of feet below.
Zaphod smiled, picturing himself.
A thoroughly ridiculous form of transport, but a thoroughly beautiful one.
At the top of the cliff the globe wavered for a moment, tipped onto a railed ramp, rolled down it to a small concave platform and riddled to a halt.
To tremendous applause Zaphod Beeblebrox stepped out of the bubble, his orange slash blazing in the light.
The President of the Galaxy had arrived.
He waited for the applause to die down, then raised his hand in greeting.
"Hi," he said.
A government spider sidled up to him and attempted to press a copy of his prepared speech into his hands. Pages three to seven of the original version were at the moment floating soggily on the Damogran Sea some five miles out from the bay. Pages one and two had been salvaged by a Damogran Frond Crested Eagle and had already become incorporated into an extraordinary new form of nest which the eagle had invented. It was constructed largely of papier-mache and it was virtually impossible for a newly hatched baby eagle to break out of it. The Damogran Frond Crested Eagle had heard of the notion of survival of the species but wanted no truck with it.
Zaphod Beeblebrox would not be needing his set speech and he gently deflected the one being offered him by the spider.
"Hi," he said again.
Everyone beamed at him, or at least, nearly everyone. He singled out Trillian from the crowd. Trillian was a girl that Zaphod had picked up recently while visiting a planet, just for fun, incognito. She was slim, darkish, humanoid, with long waves of black hair, a full mouth, an odd little knob of a nose and ridiculously brown eyes. With her red head scarf knotted in that particular way and her long flowing silky brown dress, she looked vaguely Arabic. Not that anyone there had ever heard of an Arab of course. The Arabs had very recently ceased to exist, and even when they had existed they were five hundred thousand light-years from Damogran. Trillian wasn't anybody in particular, or so Zaphod claimed. She just went around with him rather a lot and told him what she thought of him.
"Hi, honey," he said to her.
She flashed him a quick tight smile and looked away. Then she looked back for a moment and smiled more warmly -- but by this time he was looking at something else.
"Hi," he said to a small knot of creatures from the press who were standing nearby wishing that he would stop saying Hi and get on with the quotes. He grinned at them particularly because he knew that in a few moments he would be giving them one hell of a quote.
The next thing he said though was not a lot of use to them. One of the officials of the party had irritably decided that the President was clearly not in a mood to read the deliciously turned speech that had been written for him, and had flipped the switch on the remote- control device in his pocket. Away in front of them a huge white dome that bulged against the sky cracked down the middle, split and slowly folded itself down into the ground. Everyone gasped although they had known perfectly well it was going to do that because they'd built it that way.
Beneath it lay uncovered a huge starship, one hundred and fifty meters long, shaped like a sleek running shoe, perfectly white and mind- bogglingly beautiful. At the heart of it, unseen, lay a small gold box which carried within it the most brain-wrenching device ever conceived, a device that made this starship unique in the history of the Galaxy, a device after which the ship had been named -- the Heart of Gold.
"Wow," said Zaphod Beeblebrox to the Heart of Gold. There wasn't much else he could say.
He said it again because he knew it would annoy the press. "Wow."
The crowd turned their faces back toward him expectantly. He winked at Trillian, who raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes at him. She knew what he was about to say and thought him a terrible show-off.
"That is really amazing," he said. "That really is truly amazing. That is so amazingly amazing I think I'd like to steal it."
A marvelous presidential quote, absolutely true to form. The crowd laughed appreciatively, the newsmen gleefully punched buttons on their Sub-Etha News-Matics and the President grinned.
As he grinned his heart screamed unbearably and he fingered the small Paralyso-Matic bomb that nestled quietly in his pocket.
Finally he could bear it no more. He lifted his heads up to the sky, let out a wild whoop in major thirds, threw the bomb to the ground and ran forward through the sea of suddenly frozen beaming smiles.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz was not a pleasant sight, even for other Vogons. His highly domed nose rose high above a small piggy forehead. His dark green rubbery skin was thick enough for him to play the game of Vogon Civil Service politics, and play it well, and waterproof enough for him to survive indefinitely at sea depths of down to a thousand feet with no ill effects.
Not that he ever went swimming of course. His busy schedule would not allow it. He was the way he was because billions of years ago when the Vogons had first crawled out of the sluggish primeval seas of Vogsphere, and had lain panting and heaving on the planet's virgin shores ... when the first rays of the bright young Vogsol sun had shone across them that morning, it was as if the forces of evolution had simply given up on them there and then, had turned aside in disgust and written them off as an ugly and unfortunate mistake. They never evolved again: they should never have survived.
The fact that they did is some kind of tribute to the thick-willed slug-brained stubbornness of these creatures. Evolution? they said to themselves, who needs it?, and what nature refused to do for them they simply did without until such time as they were able to rectify the gross anatomical inconveniences with surgery.
Meanwhile, the natural forces on the planet Vogsphere had been working overtime to make up for their earlier blunder. They brought forth scintillating jeweled scuttling crabs, which the Vogons ate, smashing their shells with iron mallets; tall aspiring trees of breathtaking slenderness and color which the Vogons cut down and burned the crabmeat with; elegant gazellelike creatures with silken coats and dewy eyes which the Vogons would catch and sit on. They were no use as transport because their backs would snap instantly, but the Vogons sat on them anyway.
Thus the planet Vogsphere whiled away the unhappy millennia until the Vogons suddenly discovered the principles of interstellar travel. Within a few short Vog years every last Vogon had migrated to the Megabrantis cluster, the political hub of the Galaxy, and now formed the immensely powerful backbone of the Galactic Civil Service. They have attempted to acquire learning, they have attempted to acquire style and social graces, but in most respects the modern Vogon is little different from his primitive forebears. Every year they import twenty-seven thousand scintillating jeweled scuttling crabs from their native planet and while away a happy drunken night smashing them to bits with iron mallets.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz was a fairly typical Vogon in that he was thoroughly vile. Also, he did not like hitchhikers.
Somewhere in a small dark cabin buried deep in the intestines of Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz's flagship, a small match flared nervously. The owner of the match was not a Vogon, but he knew all about them and was right to be nervous. His name was Ford Prefect.*
He looked about the cabin but could see very little; strange monstrous shadows loomed and leaped with the tiny flickering flame, but all was quiet. He breathed a silent thank you to the Dentrassis. The Dentrassis are an unruly tribe of gourmands, a wild but pleasant bunch whom the Vogons had recently taken to employing as catering staff on their long-haul fleets, on the strict understanding that they keep themselves very much to themselves.
This suited the Dentrassis fine, because they loved Vogon money, which is one of the hardest currencies in space, but loathed the Vogons themselves. The only sort of Vogon a Dentrassi liked to see was an annoyed Vogon.
It was because of this tiny piece of information that Ford Prefect was not now a whiff of hydrogen, ozone and carbon monoxide.
He heard a slight groan. By the light of the match he saw a heavy shape
*Ford Prefect's original name is only pronounceable in an obscure Betelgeusian dialect, now virtually extinct since the Great Collapsing Hrung Disaster of Gal./Sid./Year 03758 which wiped out all the old Praxibetel communities on Betelgeuse Seven, Ford's father was the only man on the entire planet to survive the Great Collapsing Hrung Disaster, by an extraordinary coincidence that he was never able satisfactorily to explain. The whole episode is shrouded in deep mystery: in fact no one ever knew what a Hrung was nor why it had chosen to collapse on Betelgeuse Seven particularly. Ford's father, magnanimously waving aside the clouds of suspicion that had inevitably settled around him, came to live on Betelgeuse Five, where he both fathered and uncled Ford; in memory of his now dead race he christened him in the ancient Praxibetel tongue.
Because Ford never learned to say his original name, his father eventually died of shame, which is still a terminal disease in some parts of the Galaxy. The other kids at school nicknamed him Ix, which in the language of Betelgeuse Five translates as "boy who is not able satisfactorily to explain what a Hrung is, nor why it should choose to collapse on Betelgeuse Seven."
moving slightly on the floor. Quickly he shook the match out, reached in his pocket, found what he was looking for and took it out. He ripped it open and shook it. He crouched on the floor. The shape moved again.
Ford Prefect said, "I bought some peanuts."
Arthur Dent moved, and groaned again, muttering incoherently.
"Here, have some," urged Ford, shaking the packet again, "if you've never been through a matter transference beam before you've probably lost some salt and protein. The beer you had should have cushioned your system a bit. "
"Whhhrrr ..." said Arthur Dent. He opened his eyes. "It's dark," he said.
"Yes," said Ford Prefect, "it's dark."
"No light," said Arthur Dent. "Dark, no light."
One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very ery obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You 're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behavior. If human beings don't keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months' consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical and decided he quite liked human beings after all, but he always remained desperately worried about the terrible number of things they didn't know about.
"Yes," he agreed with Arthur, "no light." He helped Arthur to some peanuts. "How do you feel?" he asked him.
"Like a military academy," said Arthur, "bits of me keep on passing out."
Ford stared at him blankly in the darkness.
"If I asked you where the hell we were," said Arthur weakly, "would I regret it?"
Ford stood up. "We're safe," he said.
"Oh good," said Arthur.
"We're in a small galley cabin," said Ford, "in one of the spaceships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet."
"Ah," said Arthur, "this is obviously some strange usage of the word safe that I wasn't previously aware of."
Ford struck another match to help him search for a light switch. Monstrous shadows leaped and loomed again. Arthur struggled to his feet and hugged himself apprehensively. Hideous alien shapes seemed to throng about him, the air was thick with musty smells which sidled into his lungs without identifying themselves, and a low irritating hum kept his brain from focusing.
"How did we get here?" he asked, shivering slightly.
"We hitched a lift," said Ford.
"Excuse me?" said Arthur. "Are you trying to tell me that we just stuck out our thumbs and some green bug-eyed monster stuck his head out and said, 'Hi fellas, hop right in, I can take you as far as the Basingstoke roundabout'?"
"Well," said Ford, "the Thumb's an electronic sub-etha signaling device, the roundabout's at Barnard's Star six light-years away, but otherwise, that's more or less right."
"And the bug-eyed monster?"
"Is green, yes."
"Fine," said Arthur, "when can I go home?"
"You can't," said Ford Prefect, and found the light switch.
"Shade your eyes ..." he said, and turned it on.
Even Ford was surprised.
"Good grief," said Arthur, "is this really the interior of a flying saucer?"
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz heaved his unpleasant green body round the control bridge. He always felt vaguely irritable after demolishing populated planets. He wished that someone would come and tell him that it was all wrong so that he could shout at them and feel better. He flopped as heavily as he could onto his control seat in the hope that it would break and give him something to be genuinely angry about, but it only gave a complaining sort of creak.
"Go away!" he shouted at a young Vogon guard who entered the bridge at that moment. The guard vanished immediately, feeling rather relieved. He was glad it wouldn't now be him who delivered the report they'd just received. The report was an official release which said that a wonderful new form of spaceship drive was at this moment being unveiled at a Government research base on Damogran which would henceforth make all hyperspatial express routes unnecessary.
Another door slid open, but this time the Vogon captain didn't shout because it was the door from the galley quarters where the Dentrassis prepared his meals. A meal would be most welcome.
A huge furry creature bounded through the door with his lunch tray. It was grinning like a maniac.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz was delighted. He knew that when a Dentrassi looked that pleased with itself there was something going on somewhere on the ship that he could get very angry indeed about.
Ford and Arthur stared around them.
"Well, what do you think?" said Ford.
"It's a bit squalid, isn't it?"
Ford frowned at the grubby mattresses, unwashed cups and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear that lay around the cramped cabin.
"Well, this is a working ship, you see," said Ford. "These are the Dentrassis' sleeping quarters."
"I thought you said they were called Vogons or something."
"Yes," said Ford, "the Vogons run the ship, the Dentrassis are the cooks; they let us on board."
"I'm confused," said Arthur.
"Here, have a look at this," said Ford. He sat down on one of the mattresses and rummaged about in his satchel. Arthur prodded the mattress nervously and then sat on it himself: in fact he had very little to be nervous about, because all mattresses grown in the swamps of Sqornshellous Zeta are very thoroughly killed and dried before being put to service. Very few have ever come to life again.
Ford handed the book to Arthur.
"What is it?" asked Arthur.
"The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy. It's a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That's its job."
Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands.
"I like the cover," he said. "'Don't Panic.' It's the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody's said to me all day."
"I'll show you how it works," said Ford. He snatched it from Arthur, who was still holding it as if it were a two-week-dead lark, and pulled it out of its cover.
"You press this button here, you see, and the screen lights up, giving you the index."
A screen, about three inches by four, lit up and characters began to flicker across the surface.
"You want to know about Vogons, so I entered that name so." His fingers tapped some more keys. "And there we are."
The words Vogon Constructor Fleets flared in green across the screen.
Ford pressed a large red button at the bottom of the screen and words began to undulate across it. At the same time, the book began to speak the entry as well in a still, quiet, measured voice. This is what the book said:
"Vogon Constructor Fleets. Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy -- not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.
"The best way to get a drink out of a Vogon is to stick your finger down his throat, and the best way to irritate him is to feed his grandmother to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.
"On no account allow a Vogon to read poetry at you. "
Arthur blinked at it.
"What a strange book. How did we get a lift then?"
"That's the point, it's out of date now," said Ford, sliding the book back into its cover. "I'm doing the field research for the new revised edition, and one of the things I'll have to do is include a bit about how the Vogons now employ Dentrassi cooks, which gives us a rather useful little loophole."
A pained expression crossed Arthur's face. "But who are the Dentrassis?" he said.
"Great guys," said Ford. "They're the best cooks and the best drink mixers and they don't give a wet slap about anything else. And they'll always help hitchhikers aboard, partly because they like the company, but mostly because it annoys the Vogons. Which is exactly the sort of thing you need to know if you're an impoverished hitchhiker trying to see the marvels of the Universe for less than thirty Altairian dollars a day. And that's my job. Fun, isn't it?"
Arthur looked lost.
"It's amazing," he said, and frowned at one of the other mattresses.
"Unfortunately I got stuck on the Earth for rather longer than I intended," said Ford. "I came for a week and got stuck for fifteen years."
"But how did you get there in the first place then?"
"Easy, I got a lift with a teaser."
"Er, what is ..."
"A teaser? Teasers are usually rich kids with nothing to do. They cruise around looking for planets that haven't made interstellar contact yet and buzz them."
"Buzz them?" Arthur began to feel that Ford was enjoying making life difficult for him.
"Yeah," said Ford, "they buzz them. They find some isolated spot with very few people around, then land right by some poor unsuspecting soul whom no one's ever going to believe and then strut up and down in front of him wearing silly antennas on their head and making beep beep noises. Rather childish really." Ford leaned back on the mattress with his hands behind his head and looked infuriatingly pleased with himself.
"Ford," insisted Arthur, "I don't know if this sounds like a silly question, but what am I doing here?"
"Well, you know that," said Ford, "I rescued you from the Earth."
"And what's happened to the Earth?"
"Ah. It's been demolished."
"Has it," said Arthur levelly.
"Yes. It just boiled away into space."
"Look," said Arthur, "I'm a bit upset about that."
Ford frowned to himself and seemed to roll the thought around his mind.
"Yes, I can understand that," he said at last.
"Understand that!" shouted Arthur. "Understand that!"
Ford sprang up.
"Keep looking at the book!" he hissed urgently.
"I'm not panicking!"
"Yes, you are."
"All right, so I'm panicking, what else is there to do?"
"You just come along with me and have a good time. The Galaxy's a fun place. You'll need to have this fish in your ear."
"I beg your pardon?" asked Arthur, rather politely he thought.
Ford was holding up a small glass jar which quite clearly had a small yellow fish wriggling around in it. Arthur blinked at him. He wished there as something simple and recognizable he could grasp hold of. He would have felt safe if alongside the Dentrassis' underwear, the piles of Sqornshellolls mattresses and the man from Betelgeuse holding up a small yellow fish and offering to put it in his ear he had been able to see just a small packet of cornflakes. But he couldn't, and he didn't feel safe.
Suddenly a violent noise leaped at them from no source that he could identify. He gasped in terror at what sounded like a man trying to gargle while fighting off a pack of wolves.
"Shush!" said Ford. "Listen, it might be important."
"Im ... important?"
"It's the Vogon captain making an announcement on the tannoy."
"You mean that's how the Vogons talk?"
"But I can't speak Vogon!"
"You don't need to. Just put this fish in your ear."
Ford, with a lightning movement, clapped his hand to Arthur's ear, and he had the sudden sickening sensation of the fish slithering deep into his aural tract. Gasping with horror he scrabbled at his ear for a second or so, but then slowly turned goggle-eyed with wonder. He was experiencing the aural equivalent of looking at a picture of two black silhouetted faces and suddenly seeing it as a picture of a white candlestick. Or of looking at a lot of colored dots on a piece of paper which suddenly resolve themselves into the figure six and mean that your optician is going to charge you a lot of money for a new pair of glasses.
He was still listening to the howling gargles, he knew that, only now it had somehow taken on the semblance of perfectly straightforward English.
This is what he heard ...