Misty gray buildings loomed and flickered. They bounced up and down in a highly embarrassing way.
What sort of buildings were they?
What were they for? What did they remind her of?
It's so difficult to know what things are supposed to be when you suddenly turn up unexpectedly on a different world, which has a different culture, a different set of the most basic assumptions about life, and also incredibly dull and meaningless architecture.
The sky above the buildings was a cold and hostile black. The stars, which should have been blindingly brilliant points of light this far from the sun, were blurred and dulled by the thickness of the huge shielding bubble. Perspex or something like it. Something dull and heavy anyway.
Tricia wound the tape back again to the beginning.
She knew there was something slightly odd about it.
Well, in fact, there were about a million things that were slightly odd about it, but there was one that was nagging at her and she hadn't quite got it.
She sighed and yawned.
As she waited for the tape to rewind she cleared away some of the dirty polystyrene coffee cups that had accumulated on the editing desk and tipped them into the bin.
She was sitting in a small editing suite at a video production company in Soho. She had DO NOT DISTURB notices plastered all over the door and a block on all incoming calls at the switchboard. This was originally to protect her astonishing scoop, but now it was to protect her from embarrassment.
She would watch the tape all the way through again from the beginning. If she could bear to. She might do some fast forwarding here and there.
It was about four o'clock on Monday afternoon, and she had a kind of sick feeling. She was trying to work out what the cause of this slightly sick feeling was, and there was no shortage of candidates.
First of all, it had all come on top of the overnight flight from New York. The red-eye. Always a killer, that.
Then, being accosted by aliens on her lawn and flown to the planet Rupert. She was not sufficiently experienced in that sort of thing to be able to say for sure that that was always a killer, but she would be prepared to bet that those who went through it regularly cursed it. There were always stress charts being published in magazines. Fifty stress points for losing your job. Seventy-five points for a divorce or changing your hairstyle and so on. None of them ever mentioned being accosted on your lawn by aliens and then being flown to the planet Rupert, but she was sure it was worth a few dozen points.
It wasn't that the journey had been particularly stressful. It had been extremely dull in fact. Certainly it had been no more stressful than the trip she had just taken across the Atlantic and it had taken roughly the same time, about seven hours.
Well, that was pretty astounding, wasn't it? Flying to the outer limits of the solar system in the same time that it took to fly to New York meant they must have some fantastic unheard of form of propulsion in the ship. She quizzed her hosts about it and they agreed that it was pretty good.
"But how does it work?" she had demanded excitedly. She was still quite excited at the beginning of the trip.
She found that part of the tape and played it through to herself. The Grebulons, which is what they called themselves, were politely showing her which buttons they pressed to make the ship go.
"Yes, but what principle does it work on?" she heard herself demand, from behind the camera.
"Oh, you mean is it something like a warp drive or something like that?" they said.
"Yes," persisted Tricia. "What is it?"
"It probably is something of the kind," they said.
"Warp drive, photon drive, something like that. You'd have to ask the flight engineer."
"Which one is he?"
"We don't know. We have all lost our minds, you see."
"Oh yes," said Tricia, a little faintly. "So you said. Um, how did you lose your minds, exactly, then?"
"We don't know," they said, patiently.
"Because you've lost your minds," echoed Tricia, glumly.
"Would you like to watch television? It is a long flight. We watch television. It is something we enjoy."
All of this riveting stuff was on the tape, and fine viewing it made. First of all the picture quality was extremely poor. Tricia didn't know why this was, exactly. She had a feeling that the Grebulons responded to a slightly different range of light frequencies, and that there had been a lot of ultraviolet around, which was mucking up the video camera. There were a lot of interference patterns and video snow as well. Probably something to do with the warp drive that none of them knew the first thing about.
So what she had on tape, essentially, was a bunch of slightly thin and discolored people sitting around watching televisions that were showing network broadcasts. She had also pointed the camera out of the very tiny viewport near her seat and got a nice, slightly streaky effect of stars. She knew it was real, but it would have taken a good three or four minutes to fake.
In the end she had decided to save her precious videotape for Rupert itself and had simply sat back and watched television with them. She even dozed off for a while.
So part of her sick feeling came from the sense that she had had all that time in an alien spacecraft of astounding technological design, and had spent most of it dozing in front of reruns of " M*A*S*H" and "Cagney and Lacey." But what else was there to do? She had taken some photos as well, of course, all of which had subsequently turned out to be badly fogged when she got them back from the chemist.
Another part of her sick feeling probably came from the landing on Rupert. This at least had been dramatic and hair-raising. The ship had come sweeping in over a dark and somber landscape, a terrain so desperately far removed from the heat and light of its parent sun, Sol, that it seemed like a map of the psychological scars of the mind of an abandoned child.
Lights blazed through the frozen darkness and guided the ship into the mouth of some kind of cave that seemed to bend itself open to accept the small craft.
Unfortunately, because of the angle of their approach, and the depth at which the small, thick viewport was set into the craft's skin, it hadn't been possible to get the video camera to point directly at any of it. She ran through that bit of the tape.
The camera was pointing directly at the sun.
This is normally very bad for a video camera. But when the sun is roughly a third of a billion miles away, it doesn't do any harm. In fact it hardly makes any impression at all. You just get a small point of light right in the middle of the frame, which could be just about anything. It was just one star in a multitude.
Ah. Now, the next bit had been quite promising. They had emerged out of the ship into a vast, gray hangarlike structure. This was clearly alien technology on a dramatic scale. Huge gray buildings under the dark canopy of the Perspex bubble. These were the same buildings that she had been looking at at the end of the tape. She had taken more footage of them while leaving Rupert a few hours later, just as she was about to reboard the spacecraft for the journey home. What did they remind her of?
Well, as much as anything else they reminded her of a film set from just about any low-budget science-fiction movie of the last twenty years. A lot larger, of course, but it all looked thoroughly tawdry and unconvincing on the video screen. Apart from the dreadful picture quality, she had been struggling with the unexpected effects of gravity that was appreciably lower than on Earth, and she had found it very hard to keep the camera from bouncing around in an embarrassingly unprofessional way. It was therefore impossible to make out any detail.
And now here was the Leader coming forward to greet her, smiling and sticking his hand out.
That was all he was called. The Leader.
None of the Grebulons had names, largely because they couldn't think of any. Tricia discovered that some of them had thought of calling themselves after characters from television programs they had picked up from Earth, but hard as they had tried to call each other Wayne and Bobby and Chuck, some remnant of something lurking deep in the cultural subconscious they had brought with them from the distant stars that were their home must have told them that this really wasn't right and wouldn't do.
The Leader had looked pretty much like all the others. Possibly a bit less thin. He said how much he enjoyed her shows on TV, that he was her greatest fan, how glad he was that she had been able to come along and visit them on Rupert and how much everybody had been looking forward to her coming, how he hoped the flight had been comfortable and so on. There was no particular sense she could detect of being any kind of emissary from the stars or anything.
Certainly, watching it now on videotape, he just looked like some guy in costume and makeup, standing in front of a set that wouldn't hold up too well if you leaned against it.
She sat staring at the screen with her face cradled in her hands, and shaking her head in slow bewilderment.
This was awful.
Not only was this bit awful but she knew what was coming next. It was the bit where the Leader asked if she was hungry after the flight, and would she perhaps like to come and have something to eat? They could discuss things over a little dinner.
She could remember what she was thinking at this point.
How was she going to deal with it?
Would she actually have to eat it? Would she have access to some sort of paper napkin she could spit stuff out into? Wouldn't there be all sorts of differential immunity problems?
It turned out to be hamburgers.
Not only did it turn out to be hamburgers, but the hamburgers it turned out to be were very clearly and obviously McDonald's hamburgers which had been reheated in a microwave. It wasn't just the look of them. It wasn't just the smell. It was the polystyrene clamshell packages they came in which had "McDonald's" printed all over them.
"Eat! Enjoy!" said the Leader. "Nothing is too good for our honored guest!"
This was in his private apartment. Tricia looked around it in bewilderment that had bordered on fear but had nevertheless got it all on videotape.
The apartment had a water bed in it. And a Midi hi-fi. And one of those tall electrically illuminated glass things that sit on tabletops and appear to have large globules of sperm floating in them. The walls were covered in velvet.
The Leader lounged against a brown corduroy beanbag chair and squirted breath freshener into his mouth.
Tricia began to feel very scared, suddenly. She was farther from Earth than any human being, to her knowledge, had ever been, and she was with an alien creature who was lounging against a brown corduroy beanbag and squirting breath freshener into his mouth.
She didn't want to make any false moves. She didn't want to alarm him. But there were things she had to know.
"How did you ... where did you get ... this?" she asked, gesturing around the room nervously.
"The decor?" asked the Leader. "Do you like it? It is very sophisticated. We are a sophisticated people, we Grebulons. We buy sophisticated consumer durables ... by mail order."
Tricia had nodded tremendously slowly at this point.
"Mail order ..." she had said.
The Leader chuckled. It was one of those dark chocolate, reassuring, silky chuckles.
"I think you think they ship it here. No! Ha-ha! We have arranged a special box number in New Hampshire. We make regular pick-up visits. Ha-ha!" He lounged back in a relaxed fashion on his beanbag, reached for a reheated French fry and nibbled the end of it, an amused smile playing across his lips.
Tricia could feel her brain beginning to bubble very slightly. She kept the video camera going.
"How do you, well, er, how do you pay for these wonderful ... things?"
The Leader chuckled again.
"American Express," he said with a nonchalant shrug.
Tricia nodded slowly again. She knew that they gave cards exclusively to just about anybody.
"And these?" she said, holding up the hamburger he had presented her with.
"It is very easy," said the Leader. "We stand in line."
Again, Tricia realized with a cold, trickling feeling going down her spine, that explained an awful lot.
She hit the fast-forward button again. There was nothing of any use here at all. It was all nightmarish madness. She could have faked something that would have looked more convincing.
Another sick feeling began to creep over her as she watched this hopeless, awful tape, and she began, with slow horror, to realize that it must be the answer.
She must be ...
She shook her head and tried to get a grip.
An overnight flight going east ... The sleeping pills she had taken to get her through it. The vodka she'd had to set the sleeping pills going.
What else? Well. There was seventeen years of obsession that a glamorous man with two heads, one of which was disguised as a parrot in a cage, had tried to pick her up at a party but had then impatiently flown off to another planet in a flying saucer. There suddenly seemed to be all sorts of bothersome aspects to that idea that had never really occurred to her. Never occurred to her. In seventeen years.
She stuffed her fist into her mouth.
She must get help.
Then there had been Eric Bartlett banging on about alien spacecraft landing on her lawn. And before that ... New York had been, well, very hot and stressful. The high hopes and the bitter disappointment. The astrology stuff.
She must have had a nervous breakdown.
That was it. She was exhausted and she had had a nervous breakdown and had started hallucinating some time after she got home. She had dreamed the whole story. An alien race of people dispossessed of their own lives and histories, stuck on a remote outpost of our solar system and filling their cultural vacuum with our cultural junk. Ha! It was nature's way of telling her to check into an expensive medical establishment very quickly.
She was very, very sick. She looked at how many large coffees she'd got through as well, and realized how heavily she was breathing and how fast.
Part of solving any problem, she told herself, was realizing that you had it. She started to bring her breathing under control. She had caught herself in time. She had seen where she was. She was on the way back from whatever psychological precipice she had been on the brink of. She started to calm down, to calm down, to calm down. She sat back in the chair and closed her eyes.
After a while, now that she was breathing normally again, she opened them again.
So where had she got this tape from, then?
* * *
It was still running.
All right. It was a fake.
She had faked it herself, that was it.
It must have been her who had faked it because her voice was all over the sound track, asking questions. Every now and then the camera would swing down at the end of a shot and she would see her own feet in her own shoes. She had faked it and she had no recollection of faking it or any idea of why she had done it.
Her breathing was getting hectic again as she watched the snowy, flickering screen.
She must still be hallucinating.
She shook her head, trying to make it go away. She had no memory of faking any of this very obviously fake stuff. On the other hand she did seem to have memories that were very like the faked stuff. She continued to watch in a bewildered trance.
The person she imagined to be called the Leader was questioning her about astrology and she was answering smoothly and calmly. Only she could detect the well-disguised rising panic in her own voice.
The Leader pushed a button and a maroon velvet wall slid aside, revealing a large bank of flat TV monitors.
Each of the monitors was showing a kaleidoscope of different images: a few seconds from a game show, a few seconds from a cop show, a few seconds from a supermarket warehouse security system, a few seconds from somebody's holiday movies, a few seconds of sex, a few seconds of news, a few seconds of comedy. It was clear that the Leader was very proud of all this stuff, and he was waving his hands like a conductor while continuing at the same time to talk complete gibberish.
Another wave of his hands, and all the screens cleared to form one giant computer screen showing in diagrammatic form all the planets of the solar system, mapped out against a background of the stars in their constellations. The display was completely static.
"We have great skills," the Leader was saying. "Great skills in computation, in cosmological trigonometry, in three-dimensional navigational calculus. Great skills. Great, great skills. Only we have lost them. It is too bad. We like to have skills, only they have gone. They are in space somewhere, hurtling. With our names and the details of our homes and loved ones. Please," he said, gesturing her forward to sit at the computer's console, "be skillful for us."
Obviously what happened next was that Tricia quickly set the video camera up on its tripod to capture the whole scene. She then walked into the shot herself and sat down calmly in front of the giant computer display, spent a few moments familiarizing herself with the interface and then started smoothly and competently to pretend that she had the faintest idea what she was doing.
It hadn't been that difficult, in fact.
She was, after all, a mathematician and astrophysicist by training and a television presenter by experience, and what science she had forgotten over the years she was more than capable of making up by bluffing.
The computer she was working on was clear evidence that the Grebulons came from a far more advanced and sophisticated culture than their current vacuous state suggested, and with its aid she was able, within about half an hour, to cobble together a rough working model of the solar system.
It wasn't particularly accurate or anything, but it looked good. The planets were whizzing around in reasonably good simulations of their orbits, and you could watch the movement of the whole piece of virtual cosmological clockwork from any point within the system -- very roughly. You could watch from Earth, you could watch from Mars, etc. You could watch from the surface of the planet Rupert. Tricia had been quite impressed with herself, but also very impressed with the computer system she was working on. The task would probably have taken a year or so of programming, using a computer work-station on Earth.
When she was finished, the Leader came up behind her and watched. He was very pleased and delighted with what she had achieved.
"Good," he said. "And now, please, I would like you to demonstrate how to use the system you have just designed to translate the information in this book for me."
Quietly he put a book down in front of her.
It was You and Your Planets by Gail Andrews.
Tricia stopped the tape again.
She was definitely feeling very wobbly indeed. The feeling that she easier or clearer in her head.
She pushed her seat back from the editing desk and wondered what to do. Years ago she had left the field of astronomical research because she knew, without any doubt whatsoever, that she had met a being from another planet. At a party. And she had also known, without any doubt whatsoever, that she would have made herself a laughingstock if she had ever said so. But how could she study cosmology and not say anything about the single most important thing she knew about it? She had done the only thing she could do. She had left.
Now she worked in television and the same thing had happened again.
She had videotape, actual videotape of the most astounding story in the history of, well, anything: a forgotten outpost of an alien civilization marooned on the outermost planet of our own solar system.
She had the story.
She had been there.
She had seen it.
She had the videotape, for God's sake.
And if she ever showed it to anybody, she would be a laughingstock.
How could she prove any of this? It wasn't even worth thinking about. The whole thing was a nightmare from virtually any angle she cared to look at it from. Her head was beginning to throb.
She had some aspirin in her bag. She went out of the little editing suite to the water dispenser down the corridor. She took the aspirin and drank several cups of water.
The place seemed to be very quiet. Usually there were more people bustling about the place, or at least some people bustling around the place. She popped her head around the door of the editing suite next to hers but there was no one there.
She had gone rather overboard keeping people out of her own suite. DO NOT DISTURB, the notice read. DO NOT EVEN THINK OF ENTERING. I DON'T CARE WHAT IT IS. GO AWAY. I'M BUSY!
When she went back in she noticed that the message light on her phone extension was winking and wondered how long it had been on.
"Hello?" she said to the receptionist.
"Oh, Miss McMillan, I'm so glad you called. Everybody's been trying to reach you. Your TV company. They're desperate to reach you. Can you call them?"
"Why didn't you put them through?" said Tricia.
"You said I wasn't to put anybody through for anything. You said I was to deny that you were even here. I didn't know what to do. I came up to give you a message, but ..."
"Okay," said Tricia, cursing herself. She phoned her office.
"Tricia! Where the hemorrhaging fuck are you?"
"At the editing ..."
"They said ..."
"I know. What's up?"
"What's up? Only a bloody alien spaceship!"
"Regent's Park. Big silver job. Some girl with a bird. She speaks English and throws rocks at people and wants someone to repair her watch. Just get there."
Tricia stared at it.
It wasn't a Grebulon ship. Not that she was suddenly an expert on extraterrestrial craft, but this was a sleek and beautiful silver and white thing about the size of a large oceangoing yacht, which is what it most resembled. Next to this, the structures of the huge half- dismantled Grebulon ship looked like gun turrets on a battleship. Gun turrets. That's what those blank gray buildings had looked like. And what was odd about them was that by the time she passed them again on her way to reboarding the small Grebulon craft, they had moved. These things flitted briefly through her head as she ran from the taxi to meet her camera crew.
"Where's the girl?" she shouted above the noise of helicopters and police sirens.
"There!" shouted the producer while the sound engineer hurried to clip a radio mike to her. "She says her mother and father came from here in some parallel dimension or something like that, and she's got her father's watch, and ... I don't know. What can I tell you? Husk it. Ask her what it feels like to be from outer space."
"Thanks a lot, Ted," muttered Tricia. She checked that her mike was securely clipped, gave the engineer some level, took a deep breath, tossed her hair back and switched into her role of professional reporter, on home ground. ready for anything.
At least, nearly anything.
She turned to look for the girl. That must be her, with the wild hair and wild eyes. The girl turned toward her. And stared.
"Mother!" she screamed, and started to hurl rocks at Tricia.
Daylight exploded around them. Hot, heavy sun. A desert plain stretched out ahead in a haze of heat. They thundered out into it.
"Jump!" shouted Ford Prefect.
"What?" shouted Arthur Dent, holding on for dear life.
There was no reply.
"What did you say?" shouted Arthur again, and then realized that Ford Prefect was no longer there. He looked around in panic and started to slip. Realizing he couldn't hold on any longer, he pushed himself sideways as hard as he could and rolled into a ball as he hit the ground, rolling, rolling away from the pounding hooves.
What a day, he thought, as he started furiously coughing dust up out of his lungs. He hadn't had a day as bad as this since the Earth had been blown up. He staggered up to his knees, and then up to his feet and started to run away. He didn't know what from or what to, but running away seemed a prudent move.
He ran straight into Ford Prefect, who was standing there surveying the scene.
"Look," said Ford. "That is precisely what we need."
Arthur coughed up some more dust and wiped some other dust out of his hair and eyes. He turned, panting, to look at what Ford was looking at.
It didn't look much like the domain of a King, or the King, or any kind of King. It looked quite inviting, though.
First, the context. This was a desert world. The dusty earth was packed hard and had neatly bruised every last bit of Arthur that hadn't been already bruised by the festivities of the previous night. Some way ahead of them were great cliffs that looked like sandstone, eroded by the wind and what little rain presumably fell in these parts into wild and fantastic shapes, which matched the fantastic shapes of the giant cacti that sprouted here and there from the arid, orange landscape.
For a moment Arthur dared to hope they had unexpectedly arrived in Arizona or New Mexico or maybe South Dakota, but there was plenty of evidence that this was not the case.
The Perfectly Normal Beasts, for a start, were still thundering, still pounding. They swept up in their tens of thousands from the far horizon, disappeared completely for about half a mile, then swept off, thundering and pounding to the distant horizon opposite.
Then there were the spaceships parked in front of the bar & grill. Ah. The Domain of the King Bar & Grill. Bit of an anticlimax, thought Arthur to himself.
In fact only one of the spaceships was parked in front of the Domain of the King Bar & Grill. The other three were in a parking lot by the side of the bar & grill. It was the one in front that caught the eye, though. Wonderful-looking thing. Wild fins all over it, far, far too much chrome all over the fins and most of the actual bodywork painted in a shocking pink. It crouched there like an immense brooding insect and looked as if it was at any moment about to jump on something about a mile away.
The Domain of the King Bar & Grill was slap bang in the middle of where the Perfectly Normal Beasts would be charging if they didn't take a minor transdimensional diversion on the way. It stood on its own, undisturbed. An ordinary bar & grill. A truck-stop diner. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Quiet. The Domain of the King.
"Gonna buy that spaceship," said Ford, quietly.
"Buy it?" said Arthur. "That's not like you. I thought you usually pinched them."
"Sometimes you have to show a little respect," said Ford.
"Probably have to show a little cash as well," said Arthur. "How the hell much is that thing worth?"
With a tiny movement, Ford brought his Dine-O-Charge credit card up out of his pocket. Arthur noticed that the hand holding it was trembling very slightly.
"I'll teach them to make me the restaurant critic ..." breathed Ford.
"What do you mean?" asked Arthur.
"I'll show you," said Ford with a nasty glint in his eye. "Let's go and run up a few expenses, shall we?"
"Couple beers," said Ford, "and, I dunno, a couple bacon rolls, whatever you got -- oh, and that pink thing outside."
He flipped his card on the top of the bar and looked around casually.
There was a kind of silence.
There hadn't been a lot of noise before, but there was definitely a kind of silence now. Even the distant thunder of the Perfectly Normal Beasts carefully avoiding the Domain of the King seemed suddenly a little muted.
"Just rode into town," said Ford as if nothing was odd about that or about anything else. He was leaning against the bar at an extravagantly relaxed angle.
There were about three other customers in the place, sitting at tables, nursing beers. About three. Some people would say there were exactly three, but it wasn't that kind of a place, not the kind of a place that you felt like being that specific in. There was some big guy setting up some stuff on the little stage as well. Old drum kit. Couple guitars. Country and Western kind of stuff.
The barman was not moving very swiftly to get in Ford's order. In fact he wasn't moving at all.
"Not sure that the pink thing's for sale," he said at last in the kind of accent that went on for quite a long time.
"Sure it is," said Ford. "How much you want?"
"Think of a number, I'll double it."
"Tain't mine to sell," said the barman.
The barman nodded at the big guy setting up on the stage. Big fat guy, moving slow, balding.
Ford nodded. He grinned.
"Okay," he said. "Get the beers, get the rolls. Keep the tab open."
Arthur sat at the bar and rested. He was used to not knowing what was going on. He felt comfortable with it. The beer was pretty good and made him a little sleepy, which he didn't mind at all. The bacon rolls were not bacon rolls. They were Perfectly Normal Beast rolls. He exchanged a few professional roll-making remarks with the barman and just let Ford get on with whatever Ford wanted to do.
"Okay," said Ford, returning to his stool. "It's cool. We got the pink thing."
The barman was very surprised. "He's selling it to you?"
"He's giving it to us for free," said Ford, taking a gnaw at his roll.
"Hey, no, keep the tab open, though. We have some items to add to it. Good roll."
He took a deep pull of beer.
"Good beer," he added. "Good ship, too," he said, eyeing the big pink and chrome insectlike thing, bits of which could be seen through windows of the bar. "Good everything, pretty much. You know," he said, sitting back, reflectively, "it's at times like this that you kind of wonder if it's worth worrying about the fabric of space-time and the causal integrity of the multidimensional probability matrix and the potential collapse of all waveforms in the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash and all that sort of stuff that's been bugging me. Maybe I feel that what the big guy says is right. Just let it all go. What does it matter? Let it go."
"Which big guy?" said Arthur.
Ford just nodded toward the stage. The big guy was saying, "One, two" into the mike a couple of times. Couple other guys were on the stage now. Drums. Guitar.
The barman, who had been silent for a moment or two, said, "You say he's letting you have his ship?"
"Yeah," said Ford. "'Let it all go' is what he said. 'Take the ship. Take it with my blessing. Be good to her.' I will be good to her."
He took a pull at his beer again.
"Like I was saying," he went on. "It's at times like this that you kind of think, let it all go. But then you think of guys like InfiniDim Enterprises and you think, they are not going to get away with it. They are going to suffer. It is my sacred and holy duty to see those guys suffer. Here, let me put something on the tab for the singer. I asked for a special request and we agreed. It's to go on the tab, okay?"
"Okay," said the barman, cautiously. Then he shrugged. "Okay, however you want to do it. How much?"
Ford named a figure. The barman fell over among the bottles and glasses. Ford vaulted quickly over the bar to check that he was all right and help him back up to his feet. He'd cut his finger and his elbow a bit and was feeling a little woozy but was otherwise fine. The big guy started to sing. The barman hobbled off with Ford's credit card to get authorization.
"Is there stuff going on here that I don't know about?" said Arthur to Ford.
"Isn't there usually?" said Ford.
"No need to be like that," said Arthur. He began to wake up. "Shouldn't we be going?" he said, suddenly. "Will that ship get us to Earth?
"Sure will," said Ford.
"That's where Random will be going!" said Arthur with a start. "We can follow her! But ... er ..."
Ford let Arthur get on with thinking things out for himself while he got out his old edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
"But where are we on the probability axis thing?" said Arthur. "Will the Earth be there or not there? I spent so much time looking for it. All I found was planets that were a bit like it or not at all like it, though it was clearly the right place because of the continents. The worst version was called NowWhat, where I got bitten by some wretched little animal. That's how they communicated, you know, by biting each other. Bloody painful. Then half the time, of course, the Earth isn't even there because it's been blown up by the bloody Vogons. How much sense am I making?"
Ford didn't comment. He was listening to something. He passed the Guide over to Arthur and pointed at the screen. The active entry read "Earth. Mostly harmless."
"You mean it's there!" said Arthur, excitedly. "The Earth is there! That's where Random will be going! The bird was showing her the Earth in the rainstorm!"
Ford motioned Arthur to shout a little less loudly. He was listening.
Arthur was growing impatient. He'd heard bar singers sing "Love Me Tender" before. He was a bit surprised to hear it here, right in the middle of wherever the hell this was, certainly not Earth, but then things tended not to surprise him these days as much as formerly. The singer was quite good, as bar singers went, if you liked that sort of thing, but Arthur was getting fretful.
He glanced at his watch. This only served to remind him that he didn't have his watch anymore. Random had it, or at least the remains of it.
"Don't you think we should be going?" he said, insistently.
"Shhh!" said Ford. "I paid to hear this song." He seemed to have tears in his eyes, which Arthur found a bit disturbing. He'd never seen Ford moved by anything other than very, very strong drink. Probably the dust. He waited, tapping his fingers irritably, out of time with the music.
The song ended. The singer went on to do "Heartbreak Hotel."
"Anyway," Ford whispered, "I've got to review the restaurant."
"I have to write a review."
"Write a review? Of this place?"
"Filing the review validates the expenses claim. I've fixed it so that it happens completely automatically and untraceably. This bill is going to need some validation," he added, quietly, staring into his beer with a nasty smirk.
"For a couple of beers and a roll?"
"And a tip for the singer."
"Why, how much did you tip him?"
Ford named a figure again.
"I don't know how much that is," said Arthur. "What's it worth in pounds sterling? What would it buy you?"
"It would probably buy you, roughly ... er ..." Ford screwed his eyes up as he did some calculations in his head. "Switzerland," he aid at last. He picked up his Hitchhiker's Guide and started to type.
Arthur nodded intelligently. There were times when he wished he understood what on earth Ford was talking about, and other times, like now, when he felt it was probably safer not even to try. He looked over Ford's shoulder. "This isn't going to take long, is it?" he said.
"Nah," said Ford. "Piece of piss. Just mention that the rolls were quite good, the beer good and cold, local wildlife nicely eccentric, the bar singer the best in the known universe and that's about it. Doesn't need much. Just a validation."
He touched an area on the screen marked "ENTER" and the message vanished into the Sub-Etha.
"You thought the singer was pretty good, then?"
"Yeah," said Ford. The barman was returning with a piece of paper, which seemed to be trembling in his hand.
He pushed it over to Ford with a kind of nervous, reverential twitch.
"Funny thing," said the barman. "The system rejected it first couple times. Can't say it surprised me." Beads of sweat were standing on his brow. "Then suddenly it's, Oh yeah, that's okay, and the system ... er, validates it. Just like that. You wanna ... sign it?"
Ford scanned the form quickly. He sucked his teeth. "This is going to hurt InfiniDim a lot," he said, with an appearance of concern. "Oh well," he added softly, "screw 'em."
He signed with a flourish and handed it back to the barman.
"More money," he said, "than the Colonel made for him in an entire career of doing crap movies and casino gigs. Just for doing what he does best. Standing up and singing in a bar. And he negotiated it himself. I think this is a good moment for him. Tell him I said thanks and buy him a drink." He tossed a few coins on the bar. The barman pushed them away.
"I don't think that's necessary," he said, slightly hoarsely.
"'Tis to me," said Ford. "Okay, we are outta here."
They stood out in the heat and the dust and looked at the big pink and chrome thing with amazement and admiration. Or, at least Ford looked at it with amazement and admiration.
Arthur just looked at it. "You don't think it's a bit overdone, do you?"
He said it again when they climbed inside it. The seats and quite a lot of the controls were covered in fine fur skin or suede. There was a big gold monogram on the main control panel which just read "EP."
"You know," said Ford as he fired up the ship's engines, "I asked him if it was true that he had been abducted by aliens, and you know what he said?"
"Who?" said Arthur.
"Which King? Oh, we've had this conversation, haven't we?"
"Never mind," said Ford. "For what it's worth, he said no. He went of his own accord."
"I'm still not sure who we're talking about," said Arthur.
Ford shook his head. "Look," he said, "there are some tapes over in the compartment to your left. Why don't you choose some music and put it on?"
"Okay," said Arthur, and flipped through the cartons. "Do you like Elvis Presley?" he said.
"Yeah, I do as a matter of fact," said Ford. "Now. I hope this machine can leap like it looks like it can." He engaged the main drive.
"Yeeehaah!" shouted Ford as they shot upward at face-tearing speed.
The news networks don't like this kind of thing. They regard it as a waste. An incontrovertible spaceship arrives out of nowhere in the middle of London and it is sensational news of the highest magnitude. Another completely different one arrives three and a half hours later and somehow it isn't.
ANOTHER SPACECRAFT! said the headlines and newsstand billboards. THIS ONE'S PINK. A couple of months later they could have made a lot more of it. The third spacecraft, half an hour after that, the little four-berth Hrundi runabout, only made it onto the local news.
Ford and Arthur had come screaming down out of the stratosphere and parked neatly on Portland Place. It was just after six-thirty in the evening and there were spaces free. They mingled briefly with the crowd that gathered around to ogle, then said loudly that if no one else was going to call the police, they would, and made good their escape.
"Home ..." said Arthur, a husky tone creeping into his voice as he gazed, misty-eyed, around him.
"Oh, don't get all maudlin on me," snapped Ford. "We have to find your daughter and we have to find that bird thing."
"How?" said Arthur. "This is a planet of five and a half billion people, and ..."
"Yes," said Ford. "But only one of them has just arrived from outer space in a large silver spaceship accompanied by a mechanical bird. I suggest we just find a television and something to drink while we watch it. We need some serious room service."
They checked into a large two-bedroom suite at the Langham. Mysteriously, Ford's Dine-O-Charge card, issued on a planet over five thousand light years away, seemed to present the hotel's computer with no problems.
Ford hit the phones straight away while Arthur attempted to locate the television.
"Okay," said Ford. "I want to order up some margaritas, please. Couple of pitchers. Couple of chef's salads. And as much foie gras as you've got. And also London Zoo."
"She's on the news!" shouted Arthur from the next room.
"That's what I said," said Ford into the phone. "London Zoo. Just charge it to the room."
"She's ... Good God!" shouted Arthur. "Do you know who she's being interviewed by?"
"Are you having difficulty understanding the English language?" continued Ford. "It's the zoo just up the road from here. I don't care if it's closed this evening. I don't want to buy a ticket, I just want to buy the zoo. I don't care if you're busy. This is room service, I'm in a room and I want some service. Got a piece of paper? Okay. Here's what I want you to do. All the animals that can be safely returned to the wild, return them. Set up some good teams of people to monitor their progress in the wild, see that they're doing okay."
"It's Trillian!" shouted Arthur. "Or is it ... er ... God, I can't stand all this parallel universe stuff. It's so bloody confusing. It seems to be a different Trillian. It's Tricia McMillan, which is what Trillian used to be called before ... er ... Why don't you come and watch, see if you can figure it out?"
"Just a second," Ford shouted, and returned to his negotiations with room service. "Then we'll need some natural reserves for the animals that can't hack it in the wild," he said. "Set up a team to work out the best places to do that. We might need to buy somewhere like Zaire and maybe some islands. Madagascar. Baffin. Sumatta. Those kind of places. We'll need a wide variety of habitats. Look, I don't see why you're seeing this as a problem. Learn to delegate. Hire whoever you want. Get onto it. I think you'll find my credit is good. And blue cheese dressing on the salad. Thank you."
He put the phone down and went through to Arthur, who was sitting on the edge of his bed watching television.
"I ordered us some foie gras," said Ford.
"What?" said Arthur, whose attention was entirely focused on the television.
"I said I ordered us some foie gras."
"Oh," said Arthur, vaguely. "Um, I always feel a bit bad about foie gras. Bit cruel to the geese, isn't it?"
"Fuck 'em," said Ford, slumping on the bed. "You can't care about every damn thing."
"Well, that's all very well for you to say, but --"
"Drop it!" said Ford. "If you don't like it I'll have yours. What's happening?"
"Chaos!" said Arthur. "Complete chaos! Random keeps on screaming at Trillian, or Tricia or whoever it is, that she abandoned her and then demanding to go to a good night club. Tricia's broken down in tears and says she's never even met Random, let alone given birth to her. Then she suddenly started howling about someone called Rupert and said that he had lost his mind or something. I didn't quite follow that bit, to be honest. Then Random started throwing stuff and they've cut to a commercial break while they try and sort it all out. Oh! They've just cut back to the studio! Shut up and watch."
A rather shaken anchorman appeared on the screen and apologized to viewers for the disruption of the previous item. He said he didn't have any very clear news to report, only that the mysterious girl, who called herself Random Frequent Flyer Dent, had left the studio to, er, rest. Tricia McMillan would be, he hoped, back tomorrow. Meanwhile, fresh reports of UFO activity were coming in ...
Ford leapt up off the bed, grabbed the nearest phone and jabbed at a number.
"Concierge? You want to own the hotel? It's yours if you can find out for me in five minutes which clubs Tricia McMillan belongs to. Just charge the whole thing to this room."
Away in the inky depths of space invisible movements were being made.
Invisible to any of the inhabitants of the strange and temperamental Plural zone at the focus of which lay the infinitely multitudinous possibilities of the planet called Earth, but not inconsequential to them.
At the very edge of the solar system, hunkered down on a green leatherette sofa, staring fretfully at a range of TV and computer screens, sat a very worried Grebulon leader. He was fiddling with stuff. Fiddling with his book on astrology. Fiddling with the console of his computer. Fiddling with the displays being fed through to him constantly from all of the Grebulons' monitoring devices, all of them focused on the planet Earth.
He was distressed. Their mission was to monitor. But to monitor secretly. He was a bit fed up with his mission, to be honest. He was fairly certain that his mission must have been to do more than sit around watching TV for years on end. They certainly had a lot of other equipment with them that must have had some purpose if only they hadn't accidentally lost all trace of their purpose. He needed a sense of purpose in life, which was why he had turned to astrology to fill the yawning gulf that existed in the middle of his mind and soul. That would tell him something, surely.
Well, it was telling him something.
It was telling him, as far as he could make out, that he was about to have a very bad month, that things were going to go from bad to worse if he didn't get a grip on things and start making some positive moves and think things out for himself.
It was true. It was very clear from his star chart, which he had worked out using his astrology book and the computer program which that nice Tricia McMillan had designed for him to retriangulate all the appropriate astronomical data. Earth-based astrology had to be entirely recalculated to yield results that were meaningful to the Grebulons here on the tenth planet, out on the frozen edges of the solar system.
The recalculations showed absolutely clearly and unambiguously that he was going to have a very bad month indeed, starting with today. Because today Earth was starting to rise into Capricorn, and that, for the Grebulon leader, who showed all the character signs of being a classic Taurus, was very bad indeed.
This was all very distressing for him, but he knew that he had to start taking positive action. He ordered the turrets to swivel.
Because all of the Grebulon surveillance equipment was focused on the planet Earth, it failed to spot that there was now another source of data in the solar system.
Its chances of accidentally spotting this other source of data -- a massive yellow constructor ship -- were practically nil. It was as far from the sun as Rupert was, but almost diametrically opposite, almost hidden by the sun.
The massive yellow constructor ship wanted to be able to monitor events on Planet Ten without being spotted itself. It had managed this very successfully.
There were all sorts of other ways in which this ship was diametrically opposite to the Grebulons'.
Its leader, its Captain, had a very clear idea of what his purpose was. It was a very simple and plain one and he had been pursuing it in his simple, plain way for a considerable period of time now.
Anyone who knew of his purpose might have said that it was a pointless and ugly one, that it wasn't the sort of purpose that enhanced a life, put a spring in a person's step, made birds sing and flowers bloom. Rather the reverse in fact. Absolutely the reverse.
It wasn't his job to worry about that, though. It was his job to do his job, which was to do his job. If that led to a certain narrowness of vision and circularity of thought, then it wasn't his job to worry about such things. Any such things that came his way were referred to others, who had, in turn, other people to refer such things to.
Many, many light years from here, indeed from anywhere, lies the grim and long-abandoned planet Vogsphere. Somewhere on a fetid, fog-bound mud bank on this planet there stands, surrounded by the dirty, broken and empty carapaces of the last few jeweled scuttling crabs, a small stone monument which marks the place where, it is thought, the species Vogon Vogonblurtus first arose. On the monument there is carved an arrow which points away, into the fog, under which is inscribed in plain, simple letters the words "The buck stops there."
Deep in the bowels of his unsightly yellow ship, the Vogon Captain grunted as he reached for a slightly faded and dog-eared piece of paper that lay in front of him. A demolition order.
If you were to unravel exactly where the Captain's job, which was to do his job, actually began, then it all came down at last to this piece of paper that had been issued to him by his immediate superior long ago. The piece of paper had an instruction on it, and his purpose was to carry out that instruction and put a little tick mark in the adjacent box when he had carried it out.
He had carried out the instruction once before, but a number of troublesome circumstances had prevented him from being able to put the tick in the little box.
One of the troublesome circumstances was the Plural nature of this Galactic Sector, where the possible continually interfered with the probable. Simple demolition didn't get you any further than pushing down a bubble under a badly hung strip of wallpaper. Anything you demolished kept on popping up again. That would soon be taken care of.
Another was a small bunch of people who continually refused to be where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. That, also, would soon be taken care of.
The third was an irritating and anarchic little device called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That was now well and truly taken care of and, in fact, through the phenomenal power of temporal re\ verse engineering, it was now itself the agency through which everything else would be taken care of. The Captain had merely come to watch the final act of this drama. He himself did not have to lift a finger.
"Show me," he said.
The shadowy shape of a bird spread its wings and rose into the air near him. Darkness engulfed the bridge. Dim lights danced briefly in the black eyes of the bird as, deep in its instructional address space, bracket after bracket was finally closing, if clauses were finally ending, repeat loops halting, recursive functions calling themselves for the last few times.
A brilliant vision lit up in the darkness, a watery blue and green vision, a tube flowing through the air, shaped like a chopped-up string of sausages.
With a flatulent noise of satisfaction, the Vogon Captain sat back to watch.
Just there, number forty-two," shouted Ford Prefect to the taxi driver. "Right here!"
The taxi lurched to a halt, and Ford and Arthur jumped out. They had stopped at quite a number of cash dispensers on the way, and Ford chucked a fistful of money through the window at the driver.
The entrance to the club was dark, smart and severe. Only the smallest little plaque bore its name. Members knew where it was, and if you weren't a member, then knowing where it was wasn't any help to you.
Ford Prefect was not a member of Stavro's, though he had once been to Stavro's other club in New York. He had a very simple method of dealing with establishments of which he was not a member. He simply swept in as soon as the door was opened, pointed back at Arthur and said, "It's okay, he's with me."
He bounded down the dark glossy stairs, feeling very froody in his new shoes. They were suede and they were blue, and he was very pleased that in spite of everything else going on he had been sharp-eyed enough to spot them in a shop window from the back of a speeding taxi.
"I thought I told you not to come here."
"What?" said Ford.
A thin, ill-looking man wearing something baggy and Italian was walking up the stairs past them, lighting a cigarette, and had stopped, suddenly.
"Not you," he said. "Him."
He looked straight at Arthur, then seemed to become a little confused.
"Excuse me," he said. "I think I must have mistaken you for someone else." He started on up the stairs again, but almost immediately turned around once more, even more puzzled. He stared at Arthur.
"Now what?" said Ford.
"What did you say?"
"I said, now what?" repeated Ford, irritably.
"Yes, I think so," said the man and swayed slightly and dropped the book of matches he'd been carrying. His mouth moved weakly. Then he put his hand to his forehead.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm trying desperately to remember which drug I've just taken, but it must be one of those ones that mean you can't remember." He shook his head and turned away again and went up toward the men's room.
"Come on," said Ford. He hurried on downstairs, with Arthur following nervously in his wake. The encounter had shaken him badly and he didn't know why.
He didn't like places like this. For all of the dreams of Earth and home he had had for years, he now badly missed his hut on Lamuella with his knives and his sandwiches. He even missed Old Thrashbarg.
It was the most astounding effect. His name was being shouted in stereo.
He twisted to look one way. Up the stairs behind him he saw Trillian hurrying down toward him in her wonderfully rumpled Rymplon ™. She was looking suddenly aghast.
He twisted the other way to see what she was looking suddenly aghast at.
At the bottom of the stairs was Trillian, wearing ... No -- this was Tricia. Tricia that he had just seen, hysterical with confusion, on television. And behind her was Random, looking more wild-eyed than ever. Behind her in the recesses of the smart, dimly lit club, the other clientele of the evening formed a frozen tableau, staring anxiously up at the confrontation on the stairs.
For a few seconds everyone stood stock still. Only the music from behind the bar didn't know to stop throbbing.
"The gun she is holding," said Ford, quietly, nodding slightly toward Random, "is a Wabanatta 3. It was in the ship she stole from me. It's quite dangerous in fact. Just don't move for a moment. Let's just everybody stay calm and find out what's upsetting her."
"Where do I fit?" screamed Random, suddenly. The hand holding the gun was trembling fiercely. Her other hand delved into her pocket and pulled out the remains of Arthur's watch. She shook it at them.
"I thought I would fit here," she cried, "on the world that made me! But it turns out that even my mother doesn't know who I am!" She flung the watch violently aside, and it smashed into the glasses behind the bar, scattering its innards.
Everyone was very quiet for a moment or two longer.
"Random," said Trillian, quietly, from up on the stairs.
"Shut up!" shouted Random. "You abandoned me!"
"Random, it is very important that you listen to me and understand," persisted Trillian, quietly. "There isn't very much time. We must leave. We must all leave."
"What are you talking about? We're always leaving!" She had both hands on the gun now, and both were shaking. There was no one in particular she was pointing it at. She was just pointing it at the world in general.
"Listen," said Trillian again. "I left you because I went to cover a war for the network. It was extremely dangerous. At least, I thought it was going to be. I arrived and the war had suddenly ceased to happen. There was a time anomaly and ... listen! Please listen! A reconnaissance battleship had failed to turn up, the rest of the fleet was scattered in some farcical disarray. It's happening all the time now."
"I don't care! I don't want to hear about your bloody job!" shouted Random. "I want a home! I want to fit somewhere!"
"This is not your home," said Trillian, still keeping her voice calm. "You don't have one. None of us have one. Hardly anybody has one anymore. The missing ship I was just talking about. The people of that ship don't have a home. They don't know where they are from. They don't even have any memory of who they are or what they are for. They are very lost and very confused and very frightened. They are here in this solar system, and they are about to do something very ... misguided because they are so lost and confused. We ... must ... leave ... now. I can't tell you where there is to go to. Perhaps there isn't anywhere. But here is not the place to be. Please. One more time. Can we go?"
Random was wavering in panic and confusion.
"It's all right," said Arthur, gently. "If I'm here, we're safe. Don't ask me to explain just now, but I am safe, so you are safe. Okay?"
"What are you saying?" said Trillian.
"Let's all just relax," said Arthur. He was feeling very tranquil. His life was charmed and none of this seemed real.
Slowly, gradually, Random began to relax, and to let the gun down, inch by inch.
Two things happened simultaneously.
The door to the men's room at the top of the stairs opened, and the man who had accosted Arthur came out, sniffing.
Startled at the sudden movement, Random lifted the gun again just as a man standing behind her made a grab for it.
Arthur threw himself forward. There was a deafening explosion. He fell awkwardly as Trillian threw herself down over him. The noise died away. Arthur looked up to see the man at the top of the stairs gazing down at him with a look of utter stupefaction.
"You ..." he said. Then slowly, horribly, he fell apart.
Random threw the gun down and fell to her knees, sobbing. "I'm sorry!" she said. "I'm so sorry! I'm so, so sorry ..."
Tricia went to her. Trillian went to her.
Arthur sat on the stairs with his head between his hands and had not the faintest idea what to do. Ford was sitting on the stair beneath him. He picked something up, looked at it with interest and passed it up to Arthur.
"This mean anything to you?" he said.
Arthur took it. It was the book of matches that the dead man had dropped. It had the name of the club on it. It had the name of the proprietor of the club on it. It looked like this:
He stared at it for some time as things began slowly to reassemble themselves in his mind. He wondered what he should do, but he only wondered it idly. Around him people were beginning to rush and shout a lot, but it was suddenly very clear to him that there was nothing to be done, not now or ever. Through the new strangeness of noise and light he could just make out the shape of Ford Prefect sitting back and laughing wildly.
A tremendous feeling of peace came over him. He knew that at last, for once and forever, it was now all, finally, over.
In the darkness of the bridge at the heart of the Vogon ship, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz sat alone. Lights flared briefly across the external vision screens that lined one wall. In the air above him the discontinuities in the blue and green watery sausage shape resolved themselves. Options collapsed, possibilities folded into each other, and the whole at last resolved itself out of existence.
A very deep darkness descended. The Vogon Captain sat immersed in it for a few seconds.
"Light," he said.
There was no response. The bird, too, had crumpled out of all possibility.
The Vogon turned on the light himself. He picked up the piece of paper again and placed a little tick in the little box.
Well, that was done. His ship slunk off into the inky void.
In spite of having taken what he regarded as an extremely positive
piece of action, the Grebulon leader ended up having a very bad
month after all. It was pretty much the same as all the previous
months except that there was now nothing on the television anymore.
He put on a little light music instead.