Arthur wasn't quite certain which he noticed as being missing first. When he noticed that the one wasn't there, his mind instantly leapt to the other and he knew immediately that they were both gone and that something insanely bad and difficult to deal with would happen as a result.
Random was not there. And neither was the parcel.
He had left it up on a shelf all day, in plain view. It was an exercise in trust.
He knew that one of the things he was supposed to do as a parent was to show trust in his child, to build a sense of trust and confidence into the bedrock of relationship between them. He had had a nasty feeling that that might be an idiotic thing to do, but he did it anyway, and sure enough it had turned out to be an idiotic thing to do. You live and learn. At any rate, you live.
You also panic.
Arthur ran out of the hut. It was the middle of the evening. The light was getting dim and a storm was brewing. He could not see her anywhere, nor any sign of her. He asked. No one had seen her. He asked again. No one else had seen her. They were going home for the night. A little wind was whipping around the edge of the village, picking things up and tossing them around in a dangerously casual manner.
He found Old Thrashbarg and asked him. Thrashbarg looked at him stonily, and then pointed in the one direction that Arthur had dreaded and had therefore instinctively known was the way she would have gone.
So now he knew the worst.
She had gone where she thought he would not follow her.
He looked up at the sky, which was sullen, streaked and livid, and reflected that it was the sort of sky that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wouldn't feel like a bunch of complete idiots riding out of.
With a heavy sense of the utmost foreboding he set off on the track that led to the forest in the next valley. The first heavy blobs of rain began to hit the ground as Arthur tried to drag himself to some sort of run.
Random reached the crest of the hill and looked down into the next valley. It had been a longer and harder climb than she had anticipated. She was a little worried that doing the trip at night was not that great an idea, but her father had been mooching around near the hut all day trying to pretend to either her or himself that he wasn't guarding the parcel. At last he'd had to go over to the forge to talk with Strinder about the knives, and Random had seized her opportunity and done a runner with the parcel.
It was perfectly clear that she couldn't just open the thing there, in the hut, or even in the village. He might have come across her at any moment. Which meant that she had to go where she wouldn't be followed.
She could stop where she was now. She had gone this way in the hope that he wouldn't follow her, and even if he did he would never find her up in the wooded parts of the hill with night drawing in and the rain starting.
All the way up, the parcel had been jiggling under her arm. It was a satisfyingly hunky sort of thing: a box with a square top about the length of her forearm on each side, and about the length of her hand deep, wrapped up in brown plasper with an ingenious new form of self-knotting string. It didn't rattle as she shook it, but she sensed that its weight was concentrated excitingly at the center.
Having come so far, though, there was a certain satisfaction in not stopping here, but carrying on down into what seemed to be almost a forbidden area -- where her father's ship had come down. She wasn't exactly certain what the word "haunted" meant, but it might be fun to find out. She would keep going and save the parcel for when she got there.
It was getting darker, though. She hadn't used her tiny electric torch yet, because she didn't want to be visible from a distance. She would have to use it now, but it probably didn't matter now, since she would be on the other side of the hill that divided the valleys from each other.
She turned her torch on. Almost at the same moment a fork of lightning ripped across the valley into which she was heading and startled her considerably. As the darkness shuddered back around her and a clap of thunder rolled out across the land, she felt suddenly rather small and lost with just a feeble pencil of light bobbing in her hand. Perhaps she should stop after all and open the parcel here. Or maybe she should go back and come out again tomorrow. It was only a momentary hesitation, though. She knew there was no going back tonight and sensed that there was no going back ever.
She headed on down the side of the hill. The rain was beginning to pick up now. Where a short while ago it had been a few heavy blobs, it was settling in for a good pour now, hissing in the trees, and the ground was getting slippery under her feet.
At least, she thought, it was the rain hissing in the trees. Shadows were leaping and leering at her as her light bobbed through the trees. Onward and downward.
She hurried on for another ten or fifteen minutes, soaked to the skin now and shivering, and gradually became aware that there seemed to be some other light somewhere ahead of her. It was very faint and she wasn't certain if she was imagining it or not. She turned off her torch to see. There did seem to be some sort of dim glow ahead. She couldn't tell what it was. She turned her torch back on and continued down the hill, toward whatever it was.
There was something wrong with the woods, though.
She couldn't immediately say what it was, but they didn't seem like sprightly healthy woods looking forward to a good spring. The trees were lolling at sickly angles and had a sort of pallid, blighted look about them. Random more than once had the worrying sensation that they were trying to reach toward her as she passed them, but it was just a trick of the way that her light caused their shadows to flicker and lurch.
Suddenly, something fell out of a tree in front of her. She leapt backward with alarm, dropping both the torch and the box as she did so. She went down into a crouch, pulling the specially sharpened rock out of her pocket.
The thing that had fallen out of the tree was moving. The torch was lying on the ground and pointing toward it, and a vast, grotesque shadow was slowly lurching through the light toward her. She could hear faint rustling and screeching noises over the steady hiss of the rain. She scrabbled on the ground for the torch, found it and shone it directly at the creature.
At the same moment another dropped from a tree just a few feet away. She swung the torch wildly from one to the other. She held her rock up, ready to throw.
They were quite small in fact. It was the angle of the light that had made them loom so large. Not only small, but small, furry and cuddly. And there was another, dropping from the trees. It fell through the beam of light, so she saw it quite clearly.
It fell neatly and precisely, turned and then, like the other two, started slowly and purposefully to advance on Random.
She stayed rooted to the spot. She still had her rock poised and ready to throw, but was increasingly conscious of the fact that the things she had it poised and ready to throw at were squirrels. Or, at least, squirrellike things. Soft, warm, cuddly squirrellike things advancing on her in a way she wasn't at all certain she liked.
She shone her torch directly on the first of them. It was making aggressive, hectoring, screeching noises and carrying in one of its little fists a small tattered piece of wet, pink rag. Random hefted her rock menacingly in her hand, but it made no impression at all on the squirrel advancing on her with its wet piece of rag.
She backed away. She didn't know at all how to deal with this. If they had been vicious snarling slavering beasts with glistening fangs, she would have pitched into them with a will, but squirrels behaving like this she couldn't quite handle.
She backed away again. The second squirrel was starting to make a flanking maneuver around to her right. Carrying a cup. Some kind of acorn thing. The third was right behind it and making its own advance. What was it carrying? Some little scrap of soggy paper, Random thought.
She stepped back again, caught her ankle against the root of a tree and fell over backward.
Instantly the first squirrel darted forward and was on top of her, advancing along her stomach with cold purpose in its eyes, and a piece of wet rag in its fist.
Random tried to jump up, but only managed to jump about an inch. The startled movement of the squirrel on her stomach startled her in return. The squirrel froze, gripping her skin through her soaking shirt with its tiny claws. Then slowly, inch by inch, it made its way up her, stopped and proffered her the rag.
She felt almost hypnotized by the strangeness of the thing and its tiny glinting eyes. It proffered her the rag again. It pushed it at her repeatedly, screeching insistently, till at last, nervously, hesitantly, she took the thing from it. It continued to watch her intently, its eyes darting all over her face. She had no idea what to do. Rain and mud were streaming down her face and she had a squirrel sitting on her. She wiped some mud out of her eyes with the rag.
The squirrel shrieked triumphantly, grabbed the rag back, leapt off her and ran scampering into the dark, enclosing night, darted up into a tree, dived into a hole in the trunk, settled back and lit a cigarette.
Meanwhile Random was trying to fend off the squirrel with the acorn cup full of rain and the one with the paper. She shuffled backward on her bottom.
"No!" she shouted. "Go away!"
They darted back, in fright, and then darted right forward again with their gifts. She brandished her rock at them. "Go!" she yelled.
The squirrels scampered around in consternation. Then one darted straight at her, dropped the acorn cup in her lap, turned and ran off into the night. The other stood quivering for a moment, then put its scrap of paper neatly down in front of her and disappeared as well.
She was alone again, but trembling with confusion. She got unsteadily to her feet, picked up her rock and her parcel, then paused and picked up the scrap of paper as well. It was so soggy and dilapidated it was hard to make out what it was. It seemed just to be a fragment of an in-flight magazine.
Just as Random was trying to understand exactly what it was that this all meant, a man walked out into the clearing in which she was standing, raised a vicious-looking gun and shot her.
Arthur was thrashing around hopelessly two or three miles behind her, on the upward side of the hill.
Within minutes of setting out he had gone back again and equipped himself with a lamp. Not an electric one. The only electric light in the place was the one that Random had brought with her. This was a kind of dim hurricane lamp: a perforated metal canister from Strinder's forge, which contained a reservoir of inflammable fish oil, a wick of knotted dried grass and was wrapped in a translucent film made from dried membranes from the gut of a Perfectly Normal Beast.
It had now gone out.
Arthur jiggled around with it in a thoroughly pointless kind of a way for a few seconds. There was clearly no way he was going to get the thing suddenly to burst into flame again in the middle of a rainstorm, but it's impossible not to make a token effort. Reluctantly he threw the thing aside.
What to do? This was hopeless. He was absolutely sodden, his clothes heavy and billowing with the rain, and now he was lost in the dark as well.
For a brief second he was lost in the blinding light, and then he was lost in the dark again.
The sheet of lightning had at least shown him that he was very close to the brow of the hill. Once he had breasted that he would ... well, he wasn't certain what he would do. He'd have to work that out when he got there.
He limped forward and upward.
A few minutes later he knew that he was standing panting at the top. There was some kind of dim glow in the distance below him. He had no idea what it was, and indeed he hardly liked to think. It was the only thing he had to make toward, though, so he started to make his way, stumbling, lost and frightened, toward it.
The flash of lethal light passed straight through Random and, about two seconds later, so did the man who had shot it. Other than that he paid her no attention whatsoever. He had shot someone standing behind her, and when she turned to look, he was kneeling over the body and going through its pockets.
The tableau froze and vanished. It was replaced a second later by a giant pair of teeth framed by immense and perfectly glossed red lips. A huge blue brush appeared out of nowhere and started, foamily, to scrub at the teeth, which continued to hang there gleaming in the shimmering curtain of rain.
Random blinked at it twice before she got it.
It was a commercial. The guy who had shot her was part of a holographic in-flight movie. She must now be very close to where the ship had crashed. Obviously some of its systems were more indestructible than others.
The next half-mile of the journey was particularly troublesome. Not only did she have the cold and the rain and the night to contend with, but also the fractured and thrashing remains of the ship's on-board entertainment system. Spaceships and jetcars and helipods crashed and exploded continuously around her, illuminating the night, villainous people in strange hats smuggled dangerous drugs through her, and the combined orchestra and chorus of the Hallapolis State Opera performed the closing March of the AnjaQantine Star Guard from Act IV of Rizgar's Blamwellamum of Woont in a little glade somewhere off to her left.
And then she was standing on the lip of a very nasty-looking and bubbly-edged crater. There was still a faint warm glow coming from what would otherwise have looked like an enormous piece of caramelized chewing gum in the center of the pit: the melted remains of a great spaceship.
She stood looking at it for a longish while, and then at last started to walk along and around the edge of the crater. She was no longer certain what she was looking for, but kept moving anyway, keeping the horror of the pit to her left.
The rain was beginning to ease off a little, but it was still extremely wet, and since she didn't know what it was that was in the box, whether it was perhaps something delicate or damageable, she thought that she ought to find somewhere reasonably dry to open it. She hoped she hadn't already damaged it by dropping it.
She played her torch around the surrounding trees, which were thin on the ground here, and mostly charred and broken. In the middle distance she thought she could see a jumbled outcrop of rock that might provide some shelter, and she started to pick her way toward it. All around she found the detritus that had been ejected from the ship as it broke up, before the final fireball.
After she had moved two or three hundred yards from the edge of the crater, she came across the tattered fragments of some fluffy pink material, sodden, muddied and drooping among the broken trees. She guessed, correctly, that this must be the remains of the escape cocoon that had saved her father's life. She went and looked at it more closely, and then noticed something close to it on the ground, half-covered in mud.
She picked it up and wiped the mud off it. It was some kind of electronic device the size of a small book. Feebly glowing on its cover, in response to her touch, were some large friendly letters. They said DON'T PANIC. She knew what this was. It was her father's copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
She felt instantly reassured by it, turned her head up to the thundery sky and let some rain wash over her face and into her mouth. She shook her head and hurried on toward the rocks. Clambering up and over them, she almost immediately found the perfect thing. The mouth of a cave. She played her torch into its interior. It seemed to be dry and safe. Picking her way carefully, she walked in. It was quite spacious, but didn't go that deep. Exhausted and relieved, she sat on a convenient rock, put the box down in front of her and started immediately to open it.
For a long period of time there was much speculation and controversy about where the so-called "missing matter" of the Universe had got to. All over the Galaxy the science departments of all the major universities were acquiring more and elaborate equipment to probe and search the hearts of distant galaxies, and then the very center and the very edges of the whole Universe, but when eventually it was tracked down it turned out in fact to be all the stuff which the equipment had been packed in.
There was quite a large quantity of missing matter in the box, little soft round white pellets of missing matter, which Random discarded for future generations of physicists to track down and discover all over again once the findings of the current generation of physicists had been lost and forgotten about.
Out of the pellets of missing matter she lifted the featureless black disk. She put it down on a rock beside her and sifted among all the missing matter to see if there was anything else, a manual or some attachments or something, but there was nothing else at all. Just the black disk.
She shone the torch on it.
As she did so, cracks began to appear along its apparently featureless surface. Random backed away nervously, but then saw that the thing, whatever it was, was merely unfolding itself.
The process was wonderfully beautiful. It was extraordinarily elaborate, but also simple and elegant. It was like a piece of self-opening origami, or a rosebud blooming into a rose in just a few seconds.
Where just a few moments earlier there had been a smoothly curved black disk, there was now a bird. A bird, hovering there.
Random continued to back away from it, carefully and watchfully.
It was a little like a pikka bird, only rather smaller. That is to say, in fact it was larger, or to be more exact, precisely the same size or, at least, not less than twice the size. It was also both a lot bluer and a lot pinker than pikka birds, while at the same time being perfectly black. There was also something very odd about it, which Random couldn't immediately make out.
It certainly shared with pikka birds the impression it gave that it was watching something that you couldn't see.
Suddenly it vanished.
Then, just as suddenly, everything went black. Random dropped into a tense crouch, feeling for the specially sharpened rock in her pocket again. Then the blackness receded and rolled itself up into a ball, and then the blackness was the bird again. It hung in the air in front of her, beating its wings slowly and staring at her.
"Excuse me," it said suddenly, "I just have to calibrate myself. Can you hear me when I say this?"
"When you say what?" demanded Random.
"Good," said the bird. "And can you hear me when I say this?" It spoke this time at a much higher pitch.
"Yes, of course I can!" said Random.
"And can you hear me when I say this?" it said, this time in a sepulchrally deep voice.
There was then a pause.
"No, obviously not," said the bird after a few seconds. "Good, well, your hearing range is obviously between sixteen and twenty KHz. So. Is this comfortable for you?" it said in a pleasant light tenor. "No uncomfortable harmonics screeching away in the upper register? Obviously not. Good. I can use those as data channels. Now. How many of me can you see?"
Suddenly the air was full of nothing but interlocking birds. Random was well used to spending time in virtual realities, but this was something far weirder than anything she had previously encountered. It was as if the whole geometry of space was redefined in seamless bird shapes.
Random gasped and flung her arms around her face, her arms moving through bird-shaped space.
"Hmmm, obviously way too many," said the bird. "How about now?"
It concertinaed into a tunnel of birds, as if it was a bird caught between parallel mirrors, reflecting infinitely into the distance.
"What are you?" shouted Random.
"We'll come to that in a minute," said the bird. "Just how many, please?"
"Well, you're sort of ..." Random gestured helplessly off into the distance.
"I see, still infinite in extent, but at least we're homing in on the right dimensional matrix. Good. No, the answer is an orange and two lemons."
"If I have three lemons and three oranges and I lose two oranges and a lemon, what do I have left?"
"Okay, so you think that time flows that way, do you? Interesting. Am I still infinite?" it asked, ballooning this way and that in space. "Am I infinite now? How yellow am I?"
Moment by moment the bird was going through mind-mangling transformations of shape and extent.
"I can't ..." said Random, bewildered.
"You don't have to answer, I can tell from watching you now. So. Am I your mother? Am I a rock? Do I seem huge, squishy and sinuously intertwined? No? How about now? Am I going backward?"
For once the bird was perfectly still and steady.
"No, " said Random.
"Well, I was in fact, I was moving backward in time. Hmmm. Well, I think we've sorted all that out now. If you'd like to know, I can tell you that in your universe you move freely in three dimensions that you call space. You move in a straight line in a fourth, which you call time, and stay rooted to one place in a fifth, which is the first fundamental of probability. After that it gets a bit complicated, and there's all sorts of stuff going on in dimensions thirteen to twenty-two that you really wouldn't want to know about. All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it's pretty damn complicated in the first place. I can easily not say words like 'damn' if it offends you."
"Say what you damn well like."
"What the hell are you?" demanded Random.
"I am the Guide. In your universe I am your Guide. In fact I inhabit what is technically known as the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, which means ... well, let me show you."
It turned in midair and swooped out of the cave, and then perched on a rock, just beneath an overhang, out of the rain, which was getting heavier again.
"Come on," it said, "watch this."
Random didn't like being bossed around by a bird, but she followed it to the mouth of the cave anyway, still fingering the rock in her pocket.
"Rain," said the bird. "You see? Just rain."
"I know what rain is."
Sheets of the stuff were sweeping through the night, moonlight sifting through it.
"So what is it?"
"What do you mean, what is it? Look, who are you? What were you doing in that box? Why have I spent a night running through the forest fending off demented squirrels to find that all I've got at the end of it is a bird asking me what rain is? It's just water falling through the bloody air, that's what it is. Anything else you want to know or can we go home now?"
There was a long pause before the bird answered, "You want to go home?"
"I haven't got a home!" Random almost shocked herself, she screamed the words so loudly.
"Look into the rain ..." said the bird Guide.
"I'm looking into the rain! What else is there to look at?"
"What do you see?"
"What do you mean, you stupid bird? I just see a load of rain. It's just water, falling."
"What shapes do you see in the water?"
"Shapes? There aren't any shapes. It's just, just ..."
"Just a mish mash," said the bird Guide.
"Now what do you see?"
Just on the very edge of visibility a thin faint beam fanned out of the bird's eyes. In the dry air beneath the overhang there was nothing to see. Where the beam hit the drops of rain as they fell through it, there was a flat sheet of light, so bright and vivid it seemed solid.
"Oh, great. A laser show," said Random, fractiously. "Never seen one of those before, of course, except at about five million rock concerts."
"Tell me what you see!"
"Just a flat sheet! Stupid bird."
"There's nothing there that wasn't there before. I'm just using light to draw your attention to certain drops at certain moments. Now what do you see?"
The light shut off.
"I'm doing exactly the same thing, but with ultraviolet light. You can't see it."
"So what's the point of showing me something I can't see?"
"So that you understand that just because you see something, it doesn't mean to say it's there. And if you don't see something, it doesn't mean to say it's not there. It's only what your senses bring to your attention."
"I'm bored with this," said Random, and then gasped.
Hanging in the rain was a giant and very vivid three-dimensional image of her father looking startled about something.
About two miles away behind Random, her father, struggling his way through the woods, suddenly stopped. He was startled to see an image of himself looking startled about something hanging brightly in the rain-filled air about two miles away. About two miles away some distance to the right of the direction in which he was heading.
He was almost completely lost, was convinced he was going to die of cold and wet and exhaustion and was beginning to wish he could just get on with it. He had just been brought an entire golfing magazine by a squirrel, as well, and his brain was beginning to howl and gibber.
Seeing a huge bright image of himself light up in the sky told him that, on balance, he was probably right to howl and gibber but probably wrong as far as the direction he was heading was concerned. Taking a deep breath, he turned and headed off toward the inexplicable light show.
"Okay, so what's that supposed to prove?" demanded Random. It was the fact that the image was her father that had startled her rather than the appearance of the image itself. She had seen her first hologram when she was two months old and had been put in it to play. She had seen her most recent one about half an hour ago playing the March of the AnjaQantine Star Guard.
"Only that it's no more there or not there than the sheet was," said the bird. "It's just the interaction of water from the sky moving in one direction, with light at frequencies your senses can detect moving in another. It makes an apparently solid image in your mind. But it's all just images in the Mish Mash. Here's another one for you."
"My mother!" said Random.
"No," said the bird.
"I know my mother when I see her!"
The image was of a woman emerging from a spacecraft inside a large, gray hangarlike building. She was being escorted by a group of tall, thin purplish-green creatures. It was definitely Random's mother. Well, almost definitely. Trillian wouldn't have been walking quite so uncertainly in low gravity, or looking around her at a boring old life-support environment with quite such a disbelieving look on her face, or carrying such a quaint old camera.
"So who is it?" demanded Random.
"She is part of the extent of your mother on the probability axis," said the bird Guide.
"I haven't the faintest idea what you mean."
"Space, time and probability all have axes along which it is possible to move."
"Still dunno. Though I think ... No. Explain."
"I thought you wanted to go home."
"Would you like to see your home?"
"See it? It was destroyed!"
"It is discontinuous along the probability axis. Look!"
Something very strange and wonderful now swam into view in the rain. It was a huge bluish-greenish globe, misty and cloud-covered, turning with majestic slowness against a black, starry background.
"Now you see it," said the bird. "Now you don't."
A little less than two miles away now, Arthur Dent stood still in his tracks. He could not believe what he could see, hanging there, shrouded in rain, but brilliant and vividly real against the night sky -- the Earth. He gasped at the sight of it. Then, at the moment he gasped, it disappeared again. Then it appeared again. Then, and this was the bit that made him give up and stick straws in his hair, it turned into a sausage.
* * *
Random was also bewildered at the sight of this huge blue and green and watery and misty sausage hanging above her. And now it was a string of sausages, or rather it was a string of sausages in which many of the sausages were missing. The whole brilliant string turned and spun in a bewildering dance in the air and then gradually slowed, grew insubstantial and faded into the glistening darkness of the night.
"What was that?" asked Random, in a small voice.
"A glimpse along the probability axis of a discontinuously probable object."
"Most objects mutate and change along their axis of probability, but the world of your origin does something slightly different. It lies on what you might call a fault line in the landscape of probability, which means that at many probability coordinates the whole of it simply ceases to exist. It has an inherent instability, which is typical of anything that lies within what are usually designated the Plural sectors. Make sense?"
"Want to go and see for yourself?"
"To ... Earth?"
"Is that possible?"
The bird Guide did not answer at once. It spread its wings and, with an easy grace, ascended into the air and flew out into the rain, which, once again, was beginning to lighten.
It soared ecstatically up into the night sky, lights flashed around it, dimensions dithered in its wake. It swooped and turned and looped and turned again and came at last to rest two feet in front of Random's face, its wings beating slowly and silently.
It spoke to her again.
"Your universe is vast to you. Vast in time, vast in space. That's because of the filters through which you perceive it. But I was built with no filters at all, which means I perceive the Mish Mash which contains all possible universes but which has, itself, no size at all. For me, anything is possible. I am omniscient and omnipotent, extremely vain and, what is more, I come in a handy self-carrying package. You have to work out how much of the above is true."
A slow smile spread over Random's face.
"You bloody little thing. You've been winding me up!"
"As I said, anything is possible."
Random laughed. "Okay," she said. "Let's try and go to Earth. Let's go to Earth at some point on its, er ..."
"Yes. Where it hasn't been blown up. Okay. So you're the Guide. How do we get a lift?"
"Reverse engineering. To me the flow of time is irrelevant. You decide what you want. I then merely make sure that it has already happened."
"Anything is possible."
Random frowned. "You are joking, aren't you?"
"Let me put it another way," said the bird. "Reverse engineering enables us to shortcut all the business of waiting for one of the horribly few spaceships that passes through your galactic sector every year or so to make up its mind about whether or not it feels like giving you a lift. You want a lift, a ship arrives and gives you one. The pilot may think he has any one of a million reasons why he has decided to stop and pick you up. The real reason is that I have determined that he will."
"This is you being extremely vain, isn't it, little bird?"
The bird was silent.
"Okay," said Random. "I want a ship to take me to Earth."
"Will this one do?"
It was so silent that Random had not noticed the descending space ship until it was nearly on top of her.
Arthur had noticed it. He was a mile away now and closing. Just after the illuminated sausage display had drawn to its conclusion, he had noticed the faint glimmerings of further lights coming down out of the clouds and had, to begin with, assumed it to be another piece of flashy son et lumiere.
It took a moment or so for it to dawn on him that it was an actual spaceship, and a moment or too longer for him to realize that it was dropping directly down to where he assumed his daughter to be. That was when, rain or no rain, old leg injury or no leg injury, darkness or no darkness, he suddenly started really to run.
He fell almost immediately, slid and hurt his knee quite badly on a rock. He slithered back up to his feet and tried again. He had a horrible cold feeling that he was about to lose Random forever. Limping and cursing, he ran. He didn't know what it was that had been in the box, but the name on it had been Ford Prefect, and that was the name he cursed as he ran.
The ship was one of the sexiest and most beautiful ones that Random had ever seen.
It was astounding. Silver, sleek, ineffable.
If she didn't know better she would have said it was an RW6. As it settled silently beside her she realized that it actually was an RW6 and she could scarcely breathe for excitement. An RW6 was the sort of thing you only saw in the sort of magazines that were designed to provoke civil unrest.
She was also extremely nervous. The manner and timing of its arrival was deeply unsettling. Either it was the most bizarre coincidence or something very peculiar and worrying was going on. She waited a little tensely for the ship's hatch to open. Her Guide -- she thought of it as hers now -- was hovering lightly over her right shoulder, its wings barely fluttering.
The hatch opened. Just a little dim light escaped. A moment or two passed and a figure emerged. He stood still for a moment or so, obviously trying to accustom his eyes to the darkness. Then he caught sight of Random standing there and seemed a little surprised. He started to walk toward her. Then suddenly he shouted in surprise and started to run at her.
Random was not a good person to take a run at on a dark night when she was feeling a little strung out. She had unconsciously been fingering the rock in her pocket from the moment she saw the craft coming down.
Still running, slithering, hurtling, bumping into trees, Arthur saw at last that he was too late. The ship had only been on the ground for about three minutes, and now, silently, gracefully, it was rising up above the trees again, turning smoothly in the fine speckle of rain to which the storm had now abated, climbing, climbing, tipping up its nose and, suddenly, effortlessly, hurtling up through the clouds.
Gone. Random was in it. It was impossible for Arthur to know this, but he just went ahead and knew it anyway. She was gone. He had had his stint at being a parent and could scarcely believe how badly he had done at it. He tried to continue running, but his feet were dragging, his knee was hurting like fury and he knew that he was too late.
He could not conceive that he could feel more wretched and awful than this, but he was wrong.
He limped his way at last to the cave where Random had sheltered and opened the box. The ground bore the indentations of the spacecraft that had landed there only minutes before, but of Random there was no sign. He wandered disconsolately into the cave, found the empty box and piles of missing matter pellets strewn around the place. He felt a little cross about that. He'd tried to teach her about cleaning up after herself. Feeling a bit cross with her about something like that helped him feel less desolate about her leaving. He knew he had no means of finding her.
His foot knocked against something unexpected. He bent down to pick it up, and was thoroughly surprised to discover what it was. It was his old Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. How did that come to be in the cave? He had never returned to collect it from the scene of the crash. He had not wanted to revisit the crash and he had not wanted the Guide again. He had reckoned he was here on Lamuella, making sandwiches, for good. How did it come to be in the cave? It was active. The words on the cover flashed DON'T PANIC at him.
He went out of the cave again into the dim and damp moonlight. He sat on a rock to have a look through the old Guide, and then discovered it wasn't a rock, it was a person.
Arthur leapt to his feet with a start of fear. It would be hard to say which he was more frightened of: that he might have hurt the person he had inadvertently sat on or that the person he had inadvertently sat on would hurt him back.
There seemed, on inspection, to be little immediate cause for alarm on the second count. Whoever it was he had sat on was unconscious. That would probably go a great deal of the way toward explaining what he was doing lying there. He seemed to be breathing okay, though. Arthur felt his pulse. That was okay as well.
He was lying on his side, half curled up. It was so long ago and far away when Arthur had last done first aid that he really couldn't remember what it was he was supposed to do. The first thing he was supposed to do, he remembered, was to have a first aid kit about his person. Damn.
Should he roll him onto his back or not? Suppose he had any broken bones? Suppose he swallowed his tongue? Suppose he sued him? Who, apart from anything else, was he?
At that moment the unconscious man groaned loudly and rolled himself over.
Arthur wondered if he should --
He looked at him.
He looked at him again.
He looked at him again, just to make absolutely sure.
Despite the fact that he had been thinking he was feeling about as low as he possibly could, he experienced a terrible sinking feeling.
The figure groaned again and slowly opened his eyes. It took him a while to focus, then he blinked and stiffened.
"You!" said Ford Prefect.
"You!" said Arthur Dent.
Ford groaned again.
"What do you need to have explained this time?" he said, and closed his eyes in some kind of despair.
* * *
Five minutes later he was sitting up and rubbing the side of his head, where he had quite a large swelling.
"Who the hell was that woman?" he said. "Why are we surrounded by squirrels, and what do they want?"
"I've been pestered by squirrels all night," said Arthur. "They keep on trying to give me magazines and stuff."
Ford frowned. "Really?" he said.
"And bits of rag."
"Oh," he said. "Is this near where your ship crashed?"
"Yes," said Arthur. He said it a little tightly.
"That's probably it. Can happen. Ship's cabin robots get destroyed. The cyberminds that control them survive and start infecting the local wildlife. Can turn a whole ecosystem into some kind of helpless thrashing service industry, handing out hot towels and drinks to passersby. Should be a law against it. Probably is. Probably also a law against there being a law against it so everybody can get nice and worked up. Hey ho. What did you say?"
"I said, and the woman is my daughter."
Ford stopped rubbing his head.
"Say that one more time."
"I said," said Arthur, huffily, "the woman is my daughter."
"I didn't know," said Ford, "that you had a daughter."
"Well, there's probably a lot you don't know about me," said Arthur. "Come to mention it, there's probably a lot I don't know about me either."
"Well, well, well. When did this happen then?"
"I'm not quite sure."
"That sounds like more familiar territory," said Ford. "Is there a mother involved?"
"Trillian? I didn't think that ..."
"No. Look, it's a bit embarrassing."
"I remember she told me once she had a kid but only, sort of, in passing. I'm in touch with her from time to time. Never seen her with the kid."
Arthur said nothing.
Ford started to feel the side of his head again in some bemusement.
"Are you sure this was your daughter?" he said.
"Tell me what happened."
"Phroo. Long story. I was coming to pick up this parcel I'd sent to myself here care of you ..."
"Well, what was that all about?"
"I think it may be something unimaginably dangerous."
"And you sent it to me?" protested Arthur.
"Safest place I could think of. I thought I could rely on you to be absolutely boring and not open it. Anyway, coming in at night I couldn't find this village place. I was going by pretty basic information. I couldn't find any signal of any kind. I guess you don't have signals and stuff here."
"That's what I like about it."
"Then I did pick up a faint signal from your old copy of the Guide, so I homed in on that, thinking that would take me to you. I found I'd landed in some kind of wood. Couldn't figure out what was going on. I get out, and then see this woman standing there. I go up to say hello, then suddenly I see that she's got this thing!"
"The thing I sent you! The new Guide. The bird thing! You were meant to keep it safe, you idiot, but this woman had the thing right there by her shoulder. I ran forward and she hit me with a rock."
"I see," said Arthur. "What did you do?"
"Well, I fell over, of course. I was very badly hurt. She and the bird started to make off toward my ship. And when I say my ship, I mean an RW6."
"An RW6, for Zark's sake. I've got this great relationship going now between my credit card and the Guide's central computer. You would not believe that ship, Arthur, it's ..."
"So an RW6 is a spaceship, then?"
"Yes! It's -- Oh, never mind. Look, just get some kind of grip, will you, Arthur? Or at least get some kind of catalogue. At this point I was very worried. And, I think, semiconcussed. I was down on my knees and bleeding profusely, so I did the only thing I could think of, which was to beg. I said please, for Zark's sake, don't take my ship. And don't leave me stranded in the middle of some primitive zarking forest with no medical help and a head injury. I could be in serious trouble and so could she."
"What did she say?"
"She hit me on the head with the rock again."
"I think I can confirm that that was my daughter."
"You have to get to know her," said Arthur.
"She eases up, does she?"
"No," said Arthur, "but you get a better sense of when to duck."
Ford held his head and tried to see straight.
The sky was beginning to lighten in the west, which was where the sun rose. Arthur didn't particularly want to see it. The last thing he wanted after a hellish night like this one was some blasted day coming along and barging about the place.
"What are you doing in a place like this, Arthur?" demanded Ford.
"Well," said Arthur, "making sandwiches mostly."
"I am, probably was, the sandwich maker for a small tribe. It was a bit embarrassing really. When I first arrived, that is, when they rescued me from the wreckage of this super high-technology spacecraft that had crashed on their planet, they were very nice to me and I thought I should help them out a bit. You know, I'm an educated chap from a high-technology culture, I could show them a thing or two. And of course I couldn't. I haven't got the faintest idea, when it comes down to it, of how anything actually works. I don't mean like video recorders, nobody knows how to work those. I mean just something like a pen or an artesian well or something. Not the foggiest. I couldn't help at all. One day I got glum and made myself a sandwich. That suddenly got them all excited. They'd never seen one before. It was just an idea that had never occurred to them, and I happen to quite like making sandwiches, so it all sort of developed from there."
"And you enjoyed that?"
"Well, yes, I think I sort of did, really. Getting a good set of knives, that sort of thing."
"You didn't, for instance, find it mind-witheringly, explosively; astoundingly, blisteringly dull?"
"Well, er, no. Not as such. Not actually blisteringly."
"Odd. I would."
"Well, I suppose we have a different outlook."
"Like the pikka birds."
Ford had no idea what he was talking about and couldn't be bothered to ask. Instead he said, "So how the hell do we get out of this place?"
"Well, I think the simplest way from here is just to follow the way down the valley to the plains, probably take an hour, and then walk around from there. I don't think I could face going back up and over the way I came."
"Walk around where from there?"
"Well, back to the village, I suppose." Arthur sighed a little forlornly.
"I don't want to go to any blasted village!" snapped Ford. "We've got to get out of here!"
"I don't know, you tell me. You live here! There must be some way off this zarking planet."
"I don't know. What do you usually do? Sit around and wait for a passing spacecraft, I suppose."
"Oh, yes? And how many spacecraft have visited this zark-forsaken little flea-pit recently?"
"Well, a few years ago there was mine that crashed here by mistake. Then there was, er, Trillian, then the parcel delivery, and now you, and ..."
"Yes, but apart from the usual suspects?"
"Well, er, I think pretty much none, so far as I know. Pretty quiet around here."
As if deliberately to prove him wrong, there was a long, low distant roll of thunder.
Ford leapt to his feet fretfully and started pacing backward and forward in the feeble, painful light of the early dawn, which lay streaked against the sky as if someone had dragged a piece of liver across it.
"You don't understand how important this is," he said.
"What? You mean my daughter out there all alone in the Galaxy? You think I don't ..."
"Can we feel sorry for the Galaxy later?" said Ford. "This is very, very serious indeed. The Guide has been taken over. It's been bought out."
Arthur leapt up. "Oh, very serious," he shouted. "Please fill me in straight away on some corporate publishing politics! I can't tell you how much it's been on my mind of late!"
"You don't understand! There's a whole new Guide!"
"Oh!" shouted Arthur again. "Oh! Oh! Oh! I'm incoherent with excitement! I can hardly wait for it to come out to find out which are the most exciting spaceports to get bored hanging about in some globular cluster I've never heard of. Please, can we rush to a store that's got it right this very instant?"
Ford narrowed his eyes.
"This is that thing you call sarcasm, isn't it?"
"Do you know," bellowed Arthur, "I think it is? I really think it might just be a crazy little thing called sarcasm seeping in at the edges of my manner of speech! Ford, I have had a fucking bad night! Will you please try and take that into account while you consider what fascinating bits of badger-sputumly inconsequential trivia to assail me with next?"
"Try to rest," said Ford. "I need to think."
"Why do you need to think? Can't we just sit and go budumbudumbudum with our lips for a bit? Couldn't we just dribble gently and loll a little bit to the left for a few minutes? I can't stand it, Ford! I can't stand all this thinking and trying to work things out anymore. You may think that I am just standing here barking ..."
"Hadn't occurred to me in fact."
"But I mean it! What is the point? We assume that every time we do anything we know what the consequences will be, i.e., more or less what we intend them to be. This is not only not always correct. It is wildly, crazily, stupidly cross-eyed-blithering-insectly wrong!"
"Which is exactly my point."
"Thank you," said Arthur, sitting down again. "What?"
"Temporal reverse engineering."
Arthur put his head in his hands and shook it gently from side to side.
"Is there any humane way," he moaned, "in which I can prevent you from telling me what temporary reverse bloody-whatsiting is?"
"No," said Ford, "because your daughter is caught up in the middle of it and it is deadly, deadly serious."
Thunder rolled in the pause.
"All right," said Arthur. "Tell me."
"I leapt out of a high-rise office window."
This cheered Arthur up.
"Oh!" he said. "Why don't you do it again?"
"Hmmm," said Arthur, disappointed. "Obviously no good came of it."
"The first time I managed to save myself by the most astonishing and -- I say this in all modesty -- fabulous piece of ingenious quick thinking, agility, fancy footwork and self-sacrifice."
"What was the self-sacrifice?"
"I jettisoned half of a much-loved and I think irreplaceable pair of shoes."
"Why was that self-sacrifice?"
"Because they were mine!" said Ford, crossly.
"I think we have different value systems."
"Well, mine's better."
"That's according to your ... oh, never mind. So having saved yourself very cleverly once, you very sensibly went and jumped again. Please don't tell me why. Just tell me what happened if you must."
"I fell straight into the open cockpit of a passing jet towncar whose pilot had just accidentally pushed the eject button when he meant only to change tracks on the stereo. Now, even I couldn't think that that was particularly clever of me."
"Oh, I don't know," said Arthur, wearily. "I expect you probably sneaked into his jetcar the previous night, and set the pilot's least favorite track to play or something."
"No, I didn't," said Ford.
"Though oddly enough, somebody else did. And this is the nub. You could trace the chain and branches of crucial events and coincidences back and back. Turned out the new Guide had done it. That bird."
"You haven't seen it?"
"Oh. It's a lethal little thing. Looks pretty, talks big, collapses wave forms selectively at will."
"What does that mean?"
"Temporal reverse engineering."
"Oh," said Arthur. "Oh yes."
"The question is, who is it really doing it for?"
"I've actually got a sandwich in my pocket," said Arthur, delving. "Would you like a bit?"
"It's a bit squished and sodden, I'm afraid."
They munched for a bit.
"It's quite good in fact," said Ford. "What's the meat in it?"
"Perfectly Normal Beast."
"Not come across that one. So, the question is," Ford continued, "who is the bird really doing it for? What's the real game here?"
"Mmm," ate Arthur.
"When I found the bird," continued Ford, "which I did by a series of coincidences that are interesting in themselves, it put on the most fantastic multidimensional display of pyrotechnics I've ever seen. It then said that it would put its services at my disposal in my universe. I said, thanks but no thanks. It said that it would anyway, whether I liked it or not. I said just try it, and it said it would and, indeed, already had done so. I said we'd see about that and it said that we would. That's when I decided to pack the thing up and get it out of there. So I sent it to you for safety."
"Oh yes? Whose?"
"Never you mind. Then, what with one thing and another, I thought it prudent to jump out of the window again, being fresh out of other options at the time. Luckily for me the jetcar was there, otherwise I would have had to fall back on ingenious quick thinking, agility, maybe another shoe or, failing all else, the ground. But it meant that, whether I liked it or not, the Guide was, well, working for me, and that was deeply worrying."
"Because if you've got the Guide, you think that you are the one it's working for. Everything went swimmingly smoothly for me from then on, up to the very moment that I came up against the totty with the rock, then, bang, I'm history. I'm out of the loop."
"Are you referring to my daughter?"
"As politely as I can. She's the next one in the chain who will think that everything is going fabulously for her. She can beat whoever she likes around the head with bits of the landscape, everything will just swim for her until she's done whatever she's supposed to do and then it will be all up for her too. It's reverse temporal engineering, and clearly nobody understood what was being unleashed!"
"Like me, for instance."
"What? Oh, wake up, Arthur. Look, let me try it again. The new Guide came out of the research labs. It made use of this new technology of Unfiltered Perception. Do you know what that means?"
"Look, I've been making sandwiches, for Bob's sake!"
"Never mind. Just carry on."
"Unfiltered Perception means it perceives everything. Got that? I don't perceive everything. You don't perceive everything. We have filters. The new Guide doesn't have any sense filters. It perceives everything. It wasn't a complicated technological idea. It was just a question of leaving a bit out. Got it?"
"Why don't I just say that I've got it, and then you can carry on regardless."
"Right. Now because the bird can perceive every possible universe, it is present in every possible universe. Yes?"
"Y ... e ... e ... s. Ish."
"So what happens is, the bozos in the marketing and accounting departments say, 'Oh, that sounds good, doesn't that mean we only have to make one of them and then sell it an infinite number of times?' Don't squint at me like that, Arthur, this is how accountants think!"
"That's quite clever, isn't it?"
"No! It is fantastically stupid. Look. The machine's only a little Guide. It's got some quite clever cybertechnology in it, but because it has Unfiltered Perception, any smallest move it makes has the power of a virus. It can propagate throughout space, time and a million other dimensions. Anything can be focused anywhere in any of the universes that you and I move in. Its power is recursive. Think of a computer program. Somewhere, there is one key instruction, and everything else is just functions calling themselves, or brackets billowing out endlessly through an infinite address space. What happens when the brackets collapse? Where's the final 'end if'? Is any of this making sense? Arthur?"
"Sorry, I was nodding off for a moment. Something about the Universe, yes?"
"Something about the Universe, yes," said Ford, wearily. He sat down again.
"All right," he said. "Think about this. You know who I think I saw at the Guide offices? Vogons. Ah. I see I've said a word you understand at last."
Arthur leapt to his feet.
"That noise," he said.
"What about it?"
"It isn't thunder. It's the spring migration of the Perfectly Normal Beasts. It's started."
"What are these animals you keep on about?"
"I don't keep on about them. I just put bits of them in sandwiches."
"Why are they called Perfectly Normal Beasts?"
Arthur told him.
It wasn't often that Arthur had the pleasure of seeing Ford's eyes open wide with astonishment.
It was a sight that Arthur never quite got used to, or tired of. He and Ford had tracked their way swiftly along the side of the small river that flowed down along the bed of the valley, and when at last they reached the margin of the plains, they pulled themselves up into the branches of a large tree, to get a better view of one of the stranger and more wonderful visions that the Galaxy has to offer.
The great thunderous herd of thousand upon thousand of Perfectly Normal Beasts was sweeping in magnificent array across the Anhondo Plain. In the early pale light of the morning, as the great animals charged through, the fine steam of the sweat of their bodies mingled with the muddy mist churned up by their pounding hooves, their appearance seemed a little unreal and ghostly anyway, but what was heart-stopping about them was where they came from and where they went to, which appeared to be, simply, nowhere.
They formed a solid, charging phalanx roughly a hundred yards wide and half a mile long. The phalanx never moved, except that it exhibited a slight gradual drift sideways and backward for the eight or nine days that it regularly appeared for. But though the phalanx stayed more or less constant, the great beasts of which it was composed charged steadily at upward of twenty miles an hour, appearing suddenly from thin air at one end of the plain, and disappearing equally abruptly at the other end.
No one knew where they came from, no one knew where they went. They were so important to the lives of the Lamuellans, it was almost as if nobody liked to ask. Old Thrashbarg had said on one occasion that sometimes if you received an answer, the question might be taken away. Some of the villagers had privately said that this was the only properly wise thing that they'd ever heard Thrashbarg say, and after a short debate on the matter, had put it down to chance.
The noise of the pounding of the hooves was so intense that it was hard to hear anything else above it.
"What did you say?" shouted Arthur.
"I said," shouted Ford, "this looks like it might be some kind of evidence of dimensional drift."
"Which is what?" shouted Arthur back.
"Well, a lot of people are beginning to worry that spacetime is showing signs of cracking up with everything that's happening to it. There are quite a lot of worlds where you can see how the landmasses have cracked up and moved around just from the weirdly long or meandering routes that migrating animals take. This might be something like that. We live in twisted times. Still, in the absence of a decent spaceport ..."
Arthur looked at him in a kind of frozen way.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"What do you mean, what do I mean?" shouted Ford. "You know perfectly well what I mean. We're going to ride our way out of here."
"Are you seriously suggesting we try to ride a Perfectly Normal Beast?"
"Yeah. See where it goes to."
"We'll be killed! No," said Arthur, suddenly. "We won't be killed. At least I won't. Ford, have you ever heard of a planet called Stavromula Beta?"
Ford frowned. "Don't think so," he said. He pulled out his own battered old copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and accessed it. "Any funny spelling?" he said.
"Don't know. I've only ever heard it said, and that was by someone who had a mouthful of other people's teeth. You remember I told you about Agrajag?"
Ford thought for a moment. "You mean the guy who was convinced you were getting him killed over and over again?"
"Yes. One of the places he claimed I'd got him killed was Stavromula Beta. Someone tries to shoot me, it seems. I duck and Agrajag, or at least one of his many reincarnations, gets hit. It seems that this has definitely happened at some point in time, so, I suppose, I can't get killed at least until after I've ducked on Stavromula Beta. Only no one's ever heard of it."
"Hmm." Ford tried a few other searches of the Hitchhiker's Guide, but drew a blank.
"Nothing," he said.
"I was just ... no, I've never heard of it," said Ford, finally. He wondered why it was ringing a very, very faint bell, though.
"Okay," said Arthur. "I've seen the way the Lamuellan hunters trap Perfectly Normal Beasts. If you spear one in the herd it just gets trampled, so they have to lure them out one at a time for the kill. It's very like the way a matador works, you know, with a brightly colored cape. You get one to charge at you and then step aside and execute a rather elegant swing through with the cape. Have you got anything like a brightly colored cape about you?"
"This do?" said Ford, handing him his towel.
Leaping onto the back of a one-and-a-half-ton Perfectly Normal Beast migrating through your world at a thundering thirty miles an hour is not as easy as it might at first seem. Certainly it is not as easy as the Lamuellan hunters made it seem, and Arthur Dent was prepared to discover that this might turn out to be the difficult bit.
What he hadn't been prepared to discover, however, was how difficult it was even getting to the difficult bit. It was the bit that was supposed to be the easy bit that turned out to be practically impossible.
They couldn't even catch the attention of a single animal. The Perfectly Normal Beasts were so intent on working up a good thunder with their hooves, heads down, shoulders forward, back legs pounding the ground into porridge, that it would have taken something not merely startling but actually geological to disturb them.
The sheer amount of thundering and pounding was, in the end, more than Arthur and Ford could deal with. After they had spent nearly two hours prancing about doing increasingly foolish things with a medium-sized floral-patterned bath towel, they had not managed to get even one of the great beasts thundering and pounding past them to do so much as glance casually in their direction.
They were within three feet of the horizontal avalanche of sweating bodies. To have been much nearer would have been to risk instant death, chrono-logic or no chrono-logic. Arthur had seen what remained of any Perfectly Normal Beast which, as the result of a clumsy miss-throw by a young and inexperienced Lamuellan hunter, got speared while still thundering and pounding with the herd.
One stumble was all it took. No prior appointment with death on Stavromula Beta, wherever the hell Stavromula Beta was, would save you or anybody else from the thunderous, mangling, pounding of those hooves.
At last, Arthur and Ford staggered back. They sat down, exhausted and defeated, and started to criticize each other's technique with the towel.
"You've got to flick it more," complained Ford. "You need more follow-through from the elbow if you're going to get those blasted creatures to notice anything at all."
"Follow-through?" protested Arthur. "You need more suppleness in the wrist."
"You need more after-flourish," countered Ford.
"You need a bigger towel."
"You need," said another voice, "a pikka bird."
The voice had come from behind them. They turned, and there, standing behind them in the early morning sun, was Old Thrashbarg.
"To attract the attention of a Perfectly Normal Beast," he said, as he walked forward toward them, "you need a pikka bird. Like this."
From under the rough, cassocky robelike thing he wore he drew a small pikka bird. It sat restlessly on Old Thrashbarg's hand and peered intently at Bob knows what darting around about three feet six inches in front of it.
Ford instantly went into the sort of alert crouch he liked to do when he wasn't quite sure what was going on or what he ought to do about it. He waved his arms around very slowly in what he hoped was an ominous manner.
"Who is this?" he hissed.
"It's just Old Thrashbarg," said Arthur, quietly. "And I wouldn't bother with all the fancy movements. He's just as experienced a bluffer as you are. You could end up dancing around each other all day."
"The bird," hissed Ford again. "What's the bird?"
"It's just a bird!" said Arthur, impatiently. "It's like any other bird. It lays eggs and goes ark at things you can't see. Or kar or rit or something."
"Have you seen one lay eggs?" said Ford, suspiciously.
"For heaven's sake, of course I have," said Arthur. "And I've eaten hundreds of them. Make rather a good omelette. The secret is little cubes of cold butter and then whipping it lightly with ..."
"I don't want a zarking recipe," said Ford. "I just want to be sure it's a real bird and not some kind of multidimensional cybernightmare."
He slowly stood up from his crouched position and started to brush himself down. He was still watching the bird, though.
"So," said Old Thrashbarg to Arthur. "Is it written that Bob shall once more take back unto himself the benediction of his once-given Sandwich Maker?"
Ford almost went back into his crouch.
"It's all right," muttered Arthur, "he always talks like that." Aloud, he said, "Ah, venerable Thrashbarg. Um, yes. I'm afraid I think I'm going to have to be popping off now. But young Drimple, my apprentice, will be a fine sandwich maker in my stead. He has the aptitude, a deep love of sandwiches and the skills he has acquired so far, though rudimentary as yet, will, in time, mature, and, er, well, I think he'll work out okay is what I'm trying to say."
Old Thrashbarg regarded him gravely. His old gray eyes moved sadly. He held his arms aloft, one still carrying a bobbing pikka bird, the other his staff.
"O Sandwich Maker from Bob!" he pronounced. He paused, furrowed his brow and sighed as he closed his eyes in pious contemplation. "Life," he said, "will be a very great deal less weird without you!"
Arthur was stunned.
"Do you know," he said, "I think that's the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me?"
"Can we get on, please?" said Ford.
Something was already happening. The presence of the pikka bird at the end of Thrashbarg's outstretched arm was sending tremors of interest through the thundering herd. The odd head flicked momentarily in their direction. Arthur began to remember some of the Perfectly Normal Beast hunts he had witnessed. He recalled that as well as the hunter-matadors brandishing their capes there were always others standing behind them holding pikka birds. He had always assumed that, like him, they had just come along to watch.
Old Thrashbarg moved forward, a little closer to the rolling herd. Some of the Beasts were now tossing their heads back with interest at the sight of the pikka bird.
Old Thrashbarg's outstretched arms were trembling.
Only the pikka bird itself seemed to show no interest in what was going on. A few anonymous molecules of air nowhere in particular engaged all of its perky attention.
"Now!" exclaimed Old Thrashbarg at last. "Now you may work them with the towel!"
Arthur advanced with Ford's towel, moving the way the hunter-matadors did, with a kind of elegant strut that did not come at all naturally to him. But now he knew what to do and that it was right. He brandished and flicked the towel a few times, to be ready for the moment, and then he watched.
Some distance away he spotted the Beast he wanted. Head down, it was galloping toward him, right on the very edge of the herd. Old Thrashbarg twitched the bird, the Beast looked up, tossed its head, and then, just as its head was coming down again, Arthur flourished the towel in the Beast's line of sight. It tossed its head again in bemusement, and its eyes followed the movement of the towel.
He had got the Beast's attention.
From that moment on, it seemed the most natural thing to coax and draw the animal toward him. Its head was up, cocked slightly to one side. It was slowing to a canter and then a trot. A few seconds later the huge thing was standing there among them, snorting, panting, sweating and sniffing excitedly at the pikka bird, which appeared not to have noticed its arrival at all. With strange sorts of sweeping movements of his arms, Old Thrashbarg kept the pikka bird in front of the Beast, but always out of its reach and always downward. With strange sorts of sweeping movements of the towel, Arthur kept drawing the Beast's attention this way and that -- always downward.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything quite so stupid in my life," muttered Ford to himself.
At last, the Beast dropped, bemused but docile, to its knees.
"Go!" whispered Old Thrashbarg, urgently, to Ford. "Go! Go now!"
Ford leapt up onto the great creature's back, scrabbling among its thick, knotty fur for purchase, grasping great handfuls of the stuff to hold him steady once he was in position.
"Now, Sandwich Maker! Go!" He performed some elaborate sign and ritual handshake which Arthur couldn't quite get the hang of because Old Thrashbarg had obviously made it up on the spur of the moment, then he pushed Arthur forward. Taking a deep breath, he clambered up behind Ford onto the great, hot, heaving back of the Beast and held on tight. Huge muscles the size of sea lions rippled and flexed beneath him.
Old Thrashbarg held the bird suddenly aloft. The Beast's head swiveled up to follow it. Thrashbarg pushed upward and upward repeatedly with his arms and with the pikka bird; and slowly, heavily, the Perfectly Normal Beast lurched up off its knees and stood, at last, swaying slightly. Its two riders held on fiercely and nervously.
Arthur gazed out over the sea of hurtling animals, straining in an attempt to see where it was they were going, but there was nothing but heat haze.
"Can you see anything?" he said to Ford.
"No." Ford twisted around to glance back, trying to see if there was any clue as to where they had come. Still, nothing.
Arthur shouted down at Thrashbarg.
"Do you know where they come from?" he called. "Or where they're going?"
"The domain of the King!" shouted Old Thrashbarg back.
"King?" shouted Arthur in surprise. "What King?" The Perfectly Normal Beast was swaying and rocking restlessly under him.
"What do you mean, what King?" shouted Old Thrashbarg. "The King."
"It's just that you never mentioned a King," shouted Arthur back, in some consternation.
"What?" shouted Old Thrashbarg. The thrumming of a thousand hooves was very hard to hear over, and the old man was concentrating on what he was doing.
Still holding the bird aloft, he led the Beast slowly around till it was once more parallel with the motion of its great herd. He moved forward. The Beast followed. He moved forward again. The Beast followed again. At last, the Beast was lumbering forward with a little momentum.
"I said you never mentioned a King!" shouted Arthur again.
"I didn't say a King," shouted Old Thrashbarg, "I said the King."
He drew back his arm and then hurled it forward with all his strength, casting the pikka bird up into the air above the herd. This seemed to catch the pikka bird completely by surprise, as it had obviously not been paying any attention at all to what was going on. It took it a moment or two to work out what was happening, then it unfurled its little wings, spread them out and flew.
"Go!" shouted Thrashbarg. "Go and meet your destiny, Sandwich Maker!"
Arthur wasn't so sure about wanting to meet his destiny as such. He just wanted to get to wherever it was they were going so he could get back off this creature again. He didn't feel at all safe up there. The Beast was gathering speed as it followed in the wake of the pikka bird. And then it was in at the fringes of the great tide of animals, and in a moment or two, with its head down, the pikka bird forgotten, it was running with the herd again and rapidly approaching the point at which the herd was vanishing into thin air. Arthur and Ford held on to the great monster for dear life, surrounded on all sides by hurtling mountains of bodies.
"Go! Ride that Beast!" shouted Thrashbarg. His distant voice reverberated faintly in their ears. "Ride that Perfectly Normal Beast! Ride it, ride it!"
Ford shouted in Arthur's ear, "Where did he say we were going?"
"He said something about a King," shouted Arthur in return, holding on desperately.
"That's what I said. He just said the King."
"I didn't know there was a the King," shouted Ford.
"Nor did I," shouted Arthur back.
"Except of course for the King," shouted Ford. "And I don't suppose he meant him."
"What King?" shouted Arthur.
The point of exit was almost upon them. Just ahead of them, Perfectly Normal Beasts were galloping into nothingness and vanishing.
"What do you mean, what King?" shouted Ford. "I don't know what King. I'm only saying that he couldn't possibly mean the King, so I don't know what he means."
"Ford, I don't know what you're talking about."
"So?" said Ford. Then with a sudden rush, the stars came on, turned and twisted around their heads, and then, just as suddenly, turned off again.