Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic (4 page)

BOOK: Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic
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6

W
hile Leovinus had been thus engaged with business matters, The Journalist had been trying to pump information out of the workman who claimed to have come on board to reclaim his parrot.

'Come on!' said The Journalist. 'Nobody's buying that! What are you up to?'

'I have a pet parrot,' said the workman, doggedly sticking to his absurd story. 'I always take it with me when I'm working. I know Mr Leovinus wouldn't allow a bird on board, so I've been keeping it hidden. But when I came back to get it just now, I found that some bastard had opened the door of the cage and it's escaped.'

The Journalist heaved his eyes heavenwards. He was used to hearing cock-and-bull stories but this parrot-and-bastard one didn't even get off the slippery starting-blocks of meretriciousness. 'Look,' he said. 'I'm a journalist. I know when there's something fishy going on, and I know that you're hiding something. I'll cut a deal with you!'

The workman turned on him: 'I'm really very upset! I loved that parrot.'

'You tell me everything you know about the Starship and I'll not tell Star-Struct Inc. about the parrot.'

They had just reached the Central Dome area, and the worker was hurrying through the gallery surrounding the Central Well towards the port Embarkation Lobby.

'Why's the work got so behind? They've been cutting corners, haven't they? Leovinus seemed to be in the dark about it. And all these stories about the financial problems — they're true, aren't they? What's going to happen tomorrow? This ship isn't in a fit state to take off, is it?'

'That's right!' said the worker, as he strode across the Embarkation Lobby. 'Everything you say is true.'

'If you are enjoying your stay on board, why not celebrate with an evening in the Champion Canapé Lounge — featuring canapés from the All Blerontin Finals for six centuries?' called the Deskbot.

'So?' said The Journalist.

'So?' said the worker, turning on The Journalist and looking him in the eye for the first time. 'If you see my parrot, give it this.' He pressed a small metal band into The Journalist's hand and disappeared through the main doors. The Journalist looked at the piece of metal in his hand; it bore an address and a phone number, which The Journalist recognized as that of the Yassaccan Embassy in Blerontis.

The Journalist spent the next half hour or so exploring the ship on his own. He discovered more unfinished areas. The starboard Embarkation Lobby, for example, was totally unfinished. Large sections of the Second Class Living Quarters were wanting decorating, some were even without beds. He noted everything down, and returned to the Central Dome, when suddenly a figure came hurtling round the columns of the gallery and collided with him.

'Droot Scraliontis!' he exclaimed.

'I know who I am!' snapped the accountant.

'Just the man I was looking for!' smiled The Journalist.

'Argh!'Scraliontis jumped and his eyes shot guiltily over The Journalist's shoulder as if expecting to see the Homicide Police with their vicious trained rabbits pouring onto the Starship to arrest the murderer of the Greatest Genius the Galaxy Had Ever Known. 'He's not dead! I swear it!'

'Who's not dead?' The Journalist couldn't believe how many juicy stories seemed to be offering themselves up to him tonight — if only he could pin one of them down. 'Who isn't dead?'

Scraliontis now realized he had made a mistake. 'Get out of my way!' he yelled.

'Not so fast!!' exclaimed The Journalist, but Scraliontis had reached a point beyond the bounds of politeness. He shoved The Journalist back against a pillar and started to run. The Journalist picked himself up, charged after the accountant and brought him down in what would have been referred to as a rugby tackle if they had played rugby football on Blerontin.

Scraliontis fought with the energy of a trapped animal. He scratched at The Journalist's face and punched and kicked. The two managed to stagger to their feet, still fighting like two snorks in a bucket of snork-swill (an old Blerontinian expression). The Journalist, being young and fitter, soon had the accountant backed up against the barrier rail of the Great Central Well. As he tried to restrict Scraliontis's movements, he could see past him down the dizzying depths of the Well… down and down seemingly forever… a breathtaking, intimidating and yet somehow inspiring sight.

'Tell me what's going on!' The Journalist was pinning Scraliontis's arms to his side. 'What's the scam?'

'Scam?' sneered Scraliontis. You'll never find out!'

'Oh yes I will!' said The Journalist.

'Very well!I'll tell you everything!' replied Scraliontis. The Journalist was totally wrong-footed. He almost said:'Oh no you won't!' but he fortunately managed to stop himself.

'That's very decent of you,' he managed to say, but he was not fool enough to let go of Scraliontis's arms.

'We're going to blow it up! How about that for a story?'

The Journalist was now fool enough to let go of Scraliontis's arms.

'You mean there's a bomb on board the Starship?'

'But you'll never find it!' grinned Scraliontis.'Because you won't be alive!' And suddenly Scraliontis had something in his hand. The Journalist didn't see what it was, but he felt a stab in the ribs. He staggered back, and looked up: Scraliontis was standing with one of the First Class Dining Room table lamps in his hand; the sharp illuminated tip was dripping with blood.

At that very moment, however, there was a terrible screech and a flash of colours as a large parrot suddenly hurtled out from the arches straight at Scraliontis. The accountant tried to beat it off, but the creature's wings kept beating at his face and its beak was tearing at his nose and the accountant scrambled back against the barrier-rail, flailing with his arms and screaming: 'Get it off! Get it off!'

And then it happened.

It was one of those ironic moments that fitted perfectly into Leovinus's current architectural style, and it gave The Journalist his first piece of hard evidence that corners had indeed been cut during the construction of the
Starship Titanic
.

Scraliontis had, of course, been the main instigator of the plan to reduce the construction costs of the Starship. It had become clear that the whole project could never break even — let alone go into profit. It was, in fact, heading for total enormous financial disaster. His and Brobostigon's reputations and personal fortunes were both on the line. There was only one clean, simple, rational solution — and that was to scuttle the ship, and claim the insurance.

The ship was, of course, already heavily insured, and Scraliontis made sure that those policies were beefed-up and that all moneys repayable were routed through companies owned by himself and Brobostigon. Construction costs had to be cut to the bone, and building restricted to the merely cosmetic. He had, unbeknownst to Leovinus, instructed contractors to halve and then quarter the specifications of any number of elements on board.

One of the materials that had been severely cut back was the metal employed in the barrier-rail surrounding the Great Central Well. 'After all,' Scraliontis had remarked, 'there aren't going to be any passengers to lean on it so why make it unnecessarily strong?'

The reason, he now realized, was that it might not be a passenger who leant on it; it might actually be the project accountant who, in a moment of forgetfulness, whilst under assault from a parrot, leant back against it. But the realization came too late. Scraliontis heard the feeble metal crack and next moment found himself falling backwards into the abyss.

By the time the horrified Journalist had made it to the broken rail, and looked down, Scraliontis was a tiny figure — still no more than a third of the way down the Great Central Well — turning gently in circles, waving his arms and shouting up ever more faintly: 'Bloody parrots!'

The parrot in question alighted on The Journalist's shoulder.

'Bloody accountants!' it said.

7

T
he vicious rabbits had been brought back under control. The over-excited dot police had been calmed down by their Chief, and the Yassaccan protesters lay groaning in mangled bloody heaps on the ground. It had been a totally successful exercise in crowd management. Flortin Rimanquez saluted smartly as he reported back to the Gat of Blerontis.

'Everything under control, your Magnificent Beneficence,' he said. 'You may proceed with the launch.'

'But Leovinus is still missing,' replied the Gat, who was extremely concerned that he might miss out on the great photo-opportunity of being seen arm in arm with the Greatest Genius the Galaxy Had Ever Produced. It was exactly the sort of thing his sagging poll-ratings needed, said his publicity agent. 'Whatever you do, get your photo next to Leovinus.' It was, indeed, the single most important thing on the Gat's mind throughout the whole proceedings.

'With regret, Your Ultimate Lordship,' said the Chief of Police with another sharp salute, 'the crowd down there is fifty million. They are getting extremely restive. I humbly suggest that we get this launch over and done with so my boys can start dispersing them at once — otherwise we might all be sorry.'

The Gat could see what he meant. The crowd had already closed in over the bodies of the unfortunate Yassaccan demonstrators, and he could see fights breaking out all over the launch area.

'Very well,' he sighed. 'No thank you!' he added, as the minor official offered him a 'fish-paste' sandwich.

'I'm afraid you have to, Your Magnificence, it's all part of the ceremony!' whispered the minor official hurriedly.

The Gat groaned and took the 'fish-paste' sandwich. The band struck up the Blerontin National Anthem and the crowd all stood on their heads — as they always did as a mark of respect to the monarchy.

'Sirs, madams and things,' intoned the Gat of Blerontis into the ceremonial microphone. 'This "fish-paste" sandwich is delicious!'

A cheer went up from the crowd. The Gat sighed again, it was such a pathetic ceremony, he thought. 'And now it is my privilege to launch this — the greatest Starship ever built! Fellow Blerontinians, this is a proud moment for all of us. I name this Starship…
Titanic
… May luck be with all who fly with her. '

And so saying, the Gat let swing the be-ribboned bottle of French champagne
[It may seem odd that a civilization that had never even heard of the planet Earth and certainly had no idea of its existence should use French champagne for such an occasion. The explanation is rather complicated and involves a lot of stuff about time-warps and Black Holes and an Inter-Galactic Smuggling Ring. If were you I simply wouldn't worry about it and just get on with the story.]
so that it smashed into the bows of the ship. At the same moment, the minor official pulled a cord and the sheeting that hitherto had covered the great Starship fell to the ground in a gentle cascade of pink silk.

There was a gasp from the multitude. Even a people used to the sight of great Starships had never before witnessed one of such vast structure, such flawless design.

'Isn't she beautiful?' sighed countless male Starship spotters, scanning their bino-scopes over the hull for the registration number.

'Your mummy built that…' murmured countless unmarried teenage mothers to their infants.

'It's a triumph!' exclaimed the Head Reporter, suddenly remembering what his script had written down for this moment.

There was a ghostly roar, as if of seas beating on a distant shore that lies beyond the horizon of thought, as hugely, magnificently, the fabulous ship eased its way forward from its construction dock. It then picked up speed, swayed a bit, wobbled a bit, veered wildly and, just as the crowd were about to scream out in disbelieving terror, it vanished. Just like that. It had undergone what was about to become famous as SMEF (Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure).

In just ten seconds, the whole, stupendous enterprise was over.

8

'W
e're going to put the bathroom here and the door over there,' said Dan.

'It's terrific,' said Nettie. 'But…'

'I thought the bathroom was going to be there and the door was going to be over here?' said Lucy.

Why did he always get it so wrong? Dan always made the effort and yet, no matter how hard he tried the things he and Lucy had discussed only the day before entirely eluded him or came out all garbled.

'That's what I meant,' said Dan.

'It's terrific,' said Nettie. 'But, I have to tell you something…'

She was interrupted by Nigel, who was sniffing around the cellar. 'You can smell the centuries of vinous pleasure oozing from the very brickwork!' he shouted up.

'The place is only a hundred and eighty years old!' Lucy shouted back down.

'It was built as a rectory,' Dan murmured to Nettie.

'Mmm, terrific,' said Nettie. 'But, look, Dan…'

'You're not kidding!' Dan felt the enthusiasm welling up from deep inside him the way it always did when he needed it to. 'We're going to have the restaurant here, on the right as you come in — not your nouvelle cuisine but state-of-the-art Californian. And here there'll be a bar.'

Lucy gave him a withering look, but mercifully she didn't correct him. Oh yes — now he remembered the restaurant was going to be on the left; it had started off on the right, then they'd changed it to the left, then they'd changed it back to the right again, but then Lucy had pointed out that the kitchen would be better on the other side so they'd gone back to the left. How the hell was he supposed to remember anyway?

'Terrific,' said Nettie. 'But look…' Her voice trailed off as Nigel reappeared. Nettie looked adorable in her simple Gap T-shirt that didn't quite cover her midriff and hand-knitted waistcoat. Nigel put his arm round her.

'Like what you see?' he asked.

'Mmmm,' said Dan.

'I mean the house,' said Nigel. Dan couldn't stand that effortless, slimy superiority that his business partner could turn on and off like a hosepipe of cold water. No wait a minute! Make that 'a business partner'. The Top Ten Travel Company was no more. They had just sold it for what seemed to Dan a ridiculously satisfactory amount of money.

'It's just what Lucy and I have always dreamed of, isn't it, Buttercup?' Dan said. Lucy hated it when he called her pet names in public, but she had never told him, so she blamed herself. She could see he thought she liked it, and the minor deception had been going on for so long now that she couldn't see how she could possibly tell him. How long had they been together? It must be all of thirteen years — in fact since the very early days of the Top Ten Travel Co., when Nigel had chatted her up in a bar in Santa Monica and introduced her to his business partner.

Lucy had originally been strongly attracted by the suave Englishman, but as they'd all got to know each other she found Dan, the quiet East Coast University man, more real and more understandable. In fact, the more they got to know each other, the more she wondered why on earth nobody could see at first glance what a complete sleazeball Nigel was.

'We're going to call it The Watergate Hotel,' said Dan.

'Won't that put off Republicans who still want to bug each other?' asked Nettie.

Nigel patted her tight bottom. 'Go and turn the car around, there's a good girl,' he said. And Nettie trotted off on her high heels down the steps of the elegant early Victorian rectory, into the night.

How can she let him treat her like that, thought Lucy to herself, but said: 'When are you going to sign the final release forms for the company, Dan?'

'Oh er… I'm not sure…' Dan seemed suddenly nervous. 'I don't think Nigel's got them yet…'

'The forms should be waiting for us back at the hotel,' said Nigel before Lucy could explode. Exploding was a reaction to Nigel which she found increasingly natural. However, in this case, the fuse was lit, but would keep burning until they got back to the hotel and found that (surprise! surprise!) the release forms hadn't arrived after all and that that damned delivery company had let Nigel down yet
again
. Poor Nigel! He always had some excuse or other.

They turned the lights off in the empty house and made their way across the drive in the darkness. Above them, the stars filled the cold night sky with astonishing clarity.

'Why hasn't Nettie turned the car round?' A twitch of irritation gave Nigel's suavity a razor-edge.

When they got to the car, they found Nettie squinting through the lens of a single-reflex Minolta that she had placed on its roof.

'What on earth d'you think you're doing, Bozo?' When Nigel sounded playful he was always at his most dangerous.

'Sh!' said Nettie. 'I'm taking a photo of the house. Don't jog the car.'

'I don't know whether you've noticed, Einstein…' there was sheer joy in Nigel's voice. He loved ridiculing his girlfriends. 'But it's night.'

''Sright!' replied Nettie, not moving her blonde head so much as a millimetre. 'I'm taking a photo called "Dan and Lucy's Hotel Beneath the Stars". It'll look great in the album! Maybe you'll frame it and hang it in the entrance hall?'

'You can't take photos at night unless you've got a flash, Dumbbell.' Nigel opened the car door.

'Hey! You've jogged it!' Nettie screamed out.

'Get in, Brainbox, I'll drive,' said Nigel.

'I guess it was long enough,' said Nettie to Dan.

'Terrific,' said Dan.

They were all just about to get in the car, when a sudden wind swept across the rectory lawn and the trees blew almost as if a hurricane had hit them — except that they blew in all directions.

'Jesus!' exclaimed Dan, gripping the side of the car, 'What was that?'

'Look!' breathed Lucy. She was pointing up in the sky.'A falling star!'

'Make a wish!' shouted Nettie.

'Holy Moly!' growled Nigel, who was the sort of person who had always preferred Captain Marvel to Superman. 'Will you look at that?!'

Above them, a most extraordinary thing was happening. A ring of cloud had suddenly formed immediately overhead and then spread out — like a nuclear explosion — until the entire sky was covered by a broiling layer of evil-looking cloud. Nigel went weak at the knees; Lucy shuddered; Dan felt his stomach jump and Nettie simply gaped.

But there was more to come.

The four Earth-folk heard a ghostly roar, as if of seas beating on a distant shore that lies beyond the horizon of thought, and then hugely, magnificently, and without warning a vast metallic prong descended from the cloud and sliced their elegant former Victorian rectory (with planning permission for commercial development) in two.

Nigel gaped; Lucy gaped; Dan gaped.

'Terrific!' murmured Nettie.

There was no other noise save the wind rushing crazily around in the trees as if it were looking for a place to hide, and the occasional thud of filling masonry, as bits of the rectory that had not already been dislodged by the thing crashed to the ground.

The thing was shiny and vertical and it stretched up into the clouds as if it always had. It was so huge — so present — that it seemed to have a perfect right to be there. As they watched, a small pin-point of light descended down the side of the thing and disappeared into the ruined house. Then it went up again.

The swirling clouds, meanwhile, had begun to diminish, and by the time the pin-point of light started to descend for the second time, the clouds had cleared to reveal the full, awesome vastness of the thing. The wide blade or prong that had buried itself in the house stretched up and up almost a mile into the sky and there it seemed to widen out into an immense metallic body — rather like a gigantic submarine.

'It's a spaceship,' murmured Nettie, and she began to walk towards it as if mesmerized, her camera dangling forgotten from her wrist. Suddenly the pin-point of light shot up again.

'Don't! Nettie! Come back!' Dan yelled.

But Lucy was already racing after Nettie. So Dan raced after Lucy. Nigel, in the meantime, tried his best to help by hiding under the steering wheel.

'Don't go near it!' said Dan,

'Nettie!'Lucy was pulling her arm, trying to head her back to the car. 'We… we… don't know what it is!'

'It's wonderful…' murmured Nettie. Something in Nettie's tone made all three of them look up at the great thing and stop whatever it was they were doing. Confronted by something so immense, so beyond their experience or imagination, anything they did suddenly seemed irrelevant, pointless.

The pin-point of light had descended into the house for the second time, and there was now a glow coming from the hallway. As the three of them brought their eyes back down to earth, they froze: a shadow had appeared on the window of the front door.

'There's something coming!' Dan could feel his knees beginning to quiver. Lucy pulled at Nettie's arm. But Nettie edged forward — as if eager to greet whatever it was that was even now opening the front door of the destroyed vicarage…

'Aggggh!' screamed Lucy as the thing emerged into the starlight.

'Good evening to you, unknown life-forms,' said the thing. 'The proprietors of Starlight Travel Inc. would like to apologize for any inconvenience you may have suffered due to the inadvertent emergency parking of their vehicle.'

'Arrrrghhh! Aaaaaaarggghhh!' Lucy was by now screaming incredibly well. Nigel was covering his ears and trying to get even further under the steering wheel of the car.

'It's all right, Lucy!' Dan was trying to calm her down.

'Arrrrghhh! Aaaaaagghhhh! Arrrrrgggghhhhh!' Lucy was not about to be calmed down by anybody. She was confronted by an Alien from Outer Space, and she was jolly well going to have a good scream.

'Sh!' said Nettie. 'It's talking to us!'

'Quite,' said the Thing From Outer Space. 'By way of apology, may we have the pleasure of offering you a free cruise on board our Starship?'

'Perhaps another day…' said Dan.

'Aaaaaaaarrrrgggh! Arrrgh! Aaaaah! Aaaggghhhh!' continued Lucy.

'Yes!' cried Nettie. 'I'd love to!'

'Come with me, madam,' said the Thing From Outer Space and turned smartly back into the ruined house.

'Well? Come on!' said Nettie. 'What a hoot!' And before either Lucy or Dan could stop her, she had followed it through the front door.

Dan hesitated, and then realized he had no choice; before Lucy could start screaming again, he was racing after Nettie, and Lucy found herself racing after Dan.

The Thing was standing by an illuminated porch and they could now see that it appeared to be nothing more frightening than a smartly dressed robot wearing headphones,who bowed politely to them and apologized for having to invite them into the service elevator.

'Please do not be alarmed,' it said in a soothing voice. 'I can assure you that the
Starship Titanic
is the most luxurious and technologically advanced Inter-Galactic Starship ever built, and every state room has hot and cold running water and colour TV.'

It bowed again and ushered them in, and somehow or other — neither Dan nor Lucy nor Nettie could later quite explain why — they all three found themselves climbing the steps into the elevator. Before they knew what was happening, the steps had retracted up behind them and the robot had flicked a switch.

'I apologize once again for having to bring you in by the service elevator,' remarked the robot, 'entrance to the Starship is normally at Embarkation Level.'

'Hey!' exclaimed Dan. 'How come you speak English?' Dan felt better now he'd found something concrete to question.

'I beg your pardon, but I am not speaking… what did you say — "English"? All robotic functions on this ship are equipped with infra-violet translation sensors which automatically scan the brain-impulses of passengers for language patterns. These patterns are then rearranged inside your heads so that you can understand and speak intelligibly whilst on the ship. You are actually speaking and understanding Blerontinian. Pretty convenient for writers of science fiction, uh?'

Dan wasn't sure what to make of this last remark -was the robot implying that he was nothing more than a figment of some writer's mind and that this whole thing was not really happening? However, before he could think any further along these lines, his mind was overwhelmed by the fantastic situation in which they now found themselves: they were speeding vertically up the vast keel towards the main body of the Starship, a mile above the surface of the Earth.

Nigel stabbed out a number on his mobile, and called half-heartedly out of the car window: 'Dan? Lucy? Nettie?' But his voice barely reached the crumbled brickwork of the ruined house.

The next moment he heard a ghostly roar, like seas beating on a far-off shore.

'Hello?' said his mobile.'Oxford Police Station. Can I help you?'

Nigel didn't reply. He was too busy watching the vast unbelievable thing as it rose up into the air again and disappeared towards the Milky Way.

'Hello? This is Oxford Police Station,' insisted his mobile phone. 'Who is this?'

Nigel looked at the smashed Victorian rectory, and the driveway where his friends had stood a few moments ago, and replaced his mobile on its cradle. 'It didn't happen,' he murmured to himself. 'It didn't happen.'

BOOK: Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic
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