Authors: Douglas Adams
After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with. He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the
button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The Nutri-Matic was designed and manufactured by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation whose complaints department now covers all the major landmasses of the first three planets in the Sirius Tau Star system.
Arthur drank the liquid and found it reviving. He glanced up at the screens again and watched a few more hundred miles of barren grayness slide past. It suddenly occurred to him to ask a question that had been bothering him.
“Is it safe?” he said.
“Magrathea’s been dead for five million years,” said Zaphod; “of course it’s safe. Even the ghosts will have settled down and raised families by now.”
At which point a strange and inexplicable sound thrilled suddenly through the bridge—a noise as of a distant fanfare; a hollow, reedy, insubstantial sound. It preceded a voice that was equally hollow, reedy and insubstantial. The voice said,
“Greetingsto you . . .”
Someone from the dead planet was talking to them.
“Computer!” shouted Zaphod.
“What the photon is it?”
“Oh, just some five-million-year-old tape that’s being broadcast at us.”
“A what? A recording?”
“Shush!” said Ford. “It’s carrying on.”
The voice was old, courteous, almost charming, but was underscored with quite unmistakable menace.
“This is a recorded announcement,”
“as I’m afraid we’re all
out at the moment. The commercial council of Magrathea thanks you for
your esteemed visit . . .”
(“A voice from ancient Magrathea!” shouted Zaphod. “Okay, okay,” said Ford.)
“. . . but regrets,”
continued the voice,
“that the entire planet is
temporarily closed for business. Thank you. If you would care to leave
your name and the address of a planet where you can be contacted, kindly
speak when you hear the tone.”
A short buzz followed, then silence.
“They want to get rid of us,” said Trillian nervously. “What do we do?”
“It’s just a recording,” said Zaphod. “We keep going. Got that, computer?”
“I got it,” said the computer and gave the ship an extra kick of speed.
After a second or so came the fanfare once again, and then the voice.
“We would like to assure you that as soon as our business is resumed announcements will be made in all fashionable magazines and
color supplements, when our clients will once again be able to select from
all that’s best in contemporary geography.”
The menace in the voice took on a sharper edge.
“Meanwhile, we thank our clients for their
kind interest and would ask them to leave. Now.”
Arthur looked round the nervous faces of his companions.
“Well, I suppose we’d better be going then, hadn’t we?” he suggested.
“Shhh!” said Zaphod. “There’s absolutely nothing to be worried about.”
“Then why’s everyone so tense?”
“They’re just interested!” shouted Zaphod. “Computer, start a descent into the atmosphere and prepare for landing.”
This time the fanfare was quite perfunctory, the voice now distinctly cold.
“It is most gratifying,”
“that your enthusiasm for our planet
continues unabated, and so we would like to assure you that the guided
missiles currently converging with your ship are part of a special service
we extend to all of our most enthusiastic clients, and the fully armed nuclear warheads are of course merely a courtesy detail. We look forward to
your custom in future lives. . . . Thank you.”
The voice snapped off.
“Oh,” said Trillian.
“Er . . .” said Arthur.
“Well?” said Ford.
“Look,” said Zaphod, “will you get it into your heads? That’s just a recorded message. It’s millions of years old. It doesn’t apply to us, get it?”
“What,” said Trillian quietly, “about the missiles?”
“Missiles? Don’t make me laugh.”
Ford tapped Zaphod on the shoulder and pointed at the rear screen. Clear in the distance behind them two silver darts were climbing through the atmosphere toward the ship. A quick change of magnification brought them into close focus—two massively real rockets thundering through the sky. The suddenness of it was shocking.
“I think they’re going to have a very good try at applying to us,” said Ford.
Zaphod stared at them in astonishment.
“Hey, this is terrific!” he said. “Someone down there is trying to kill us!”
“Terrific,” said Arthur.
“But don’t you see what this means?”
“Yes. We’re going to die.”
“Yes, but apart from that.”
“It means we must be on to something!”
“How soon can we get off it?”
Second by second the image of the missiles on the screen grew larger. They had swung round now on to a direct homing course so that all that could be seen of them now was the warheads, head-on.
“As a matter of interest,” said Trillian, “what are we going to do?”
“Just keep cool,” said Zaphod.
“Is that all?” shouted Arthur.
“No, we’re also going to . . . er . . . take evasive action!” said Zaphod with a sudden access of panic. “Computer, what evasive action can we take?”
“Er, none, I’m afraid, guys,” said the computer.
“Or something,” said Zaphod, “. . . er . . .” he said.
“There seems to be something jamming my guidance systems,” explained the computer brightly, “impact minus forty-five seconds. Please call me Eddie if it will help you to relax.”
Zaphod tried to run in several equally decisive directions simultaneously. “Right!” he said. “Er . . . we’ve got to get manual control of this ship.”
“Can you fly her?” asked Ford pleasantly.
“No, can you?”
“Trillian, can you?”
“Fine,” said Zaphod, relaxing. “We’ll do it together.”
“I can’t either,” said Arthur, who felt it was time he began to assert himself.
“I’d guessed that,” said Zaphod. “Okay, computer, I want full manual control now.”
“You got it,” said the computer.
Several large desk panels slid open and banks of control consoles sprang up out of them, showering the crew with bits of expanded polystyrene packaging and balls of rolled-up cellophane: these controls had never been used before.
Zaphod stared at them wildly.
“Okay, Ford,” he said, “full retro thrust and ten degrees starboard. Or something . . .”
“Good luck, guys,” chirped the computer, “impact minus thirty seconds. . . .”
Ford leaped to the controls—only a few of them made any immediate sense to him so he pulled those. The ship shook and screamed as its guidance rocket jets tried to push it every which way simultaneously. He released half of them and the ship spun round in a tight arc and headed back the way it had come, straight toward the oncoming missiles.
Air cushions ballooned out of the walls in an instant as everyone was thrown against them. For a few seconds the inertial forces held them flattened and squirming for breath, unable to move. Zaphod struggled and pushed in manic desperation and finally managed a savage kick at a small lever that formed part of the guidance system.
The lever snapped off. The ship twisted sharply and rocketed upward. The crew were hurled violently back across the cabin. Ford’s copy of
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
smashed into another section of the control console with the combined result that the
started to explain to anyone who cared to listen about the best ways of smuggling Antarean parakeet glands out of Antares (an Antarean parakeet gland stuck on a small stick is a revolting but much-sought-after cocktail delicacy and very large sums of money are often paid for them by very rich idiots who want to impress other very rich idiots), and the ship suddenly dropped out of the sky like a stone.
It was of course more or less at this moment that one of the crew sustained a nasty bruise to the upper arm. This should be emphasized because, as has already been revealed, they escape otherwise completely unharmed and the deadly nuclear missiles do not eventually hit the ship. The safety of the crew is absolutely assured.
“Impact minus twenty seconds, guys . . .” said the computer.
“Then turn the bloody engines back on!” bawled Zaphod.
“Oh, sure thing, guys,” said the computer. With a subtle roar the engines cut back in, the ship smoothly flattened out of its dive and headed back toward the missiles again.
The computer started to sing.
“ ‘When you walk through the storm . . .’ ” it whined nasally, “ ‘hold your head up high . . .’ ”
Zaphod screamed at it to shut up, but his voice was lost in the din of what they quite naturally assumed was approaching destruction.
“ ‘And don’t . . . be afraid . . . of the dark!’ ” Eddie wailed.
The ship, in flattening out, had in fact flattened out upside down and lying on the ceiling as they were it was now totally impossible for any of the crew to reach the guidance systems.
“ ‘At the end of the storm . . .’ ” crooned Eddie.
The two missiles loomed massively on the screens as they thundered toward the ship.
“ ‘is a golden sky . . .’ ”
But by an extraordinarily lucky chance they had not yet fully corrected their flight paths to that of the erratically weaving ship, and they passed right under it.
“ ‘And the sweet silver song of the
lark.’ . . .
Revised impact time fifteen seconds, fellas. . . . ‘Walk on through the wind . . .’ ”
The missiles banked round in a screeching arc and plunged back in pursuit.
“This is it,” said Arthur, watching them. “We are now quite definitely going to die, aren’t we?”
“I wish you’d stop saying that,” shouted Ford.
“Well, we are, aren’t we?”
“ ‘Walk on through the rain . . .’ ” sang Eddie.
A thought struck Arthur. He struggled to his feet.
“Why doesn’t anyone turn on this Improbability Drive thing?” he said. “We could probably reach that.”
“What are you, crazy?” said Zaphod. “Without proper programming anything could happen.”
“Does that matter at this stage?” shouted Arthur.
“ ‘Though your dreams be tossed and blown . . .’ ” sang Eddie.
Arthur scrambled up on to one of the excitingly chunky pieces of molded contouring where the curve of the wall met the ceiling.
“ ‘Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart . . .’ ”
“Does anyone know why Arthur can’t turn on the Improbability Drive?” shouted Trillian.
“ ‘And you’ll never walk alone.’ . . . Impact minus five seconds, it’s been great knowing you guys, God bless. . . .
‘You’ll ne . . .
ver . . . walk . . . alone!’ ”
“I said,” yelled Trillian, “does anyone know . . .”
The next thing that happened was a mind-mangling explosion of noise and light.
And the next thing that happened after that was that the Heart of Gold continued on its way perfectly normally with a rather fetchingly redesigned interior. It was somewhat larger, and done out in delicate pastel shades of green and blue. In the center a spiral staircase, leading nowhere in particular, stood in a spray of ferns and yellow flowers and next to it a stone sundial pedestal housed the main computer terminal. Cunningly deployed lighting and mirrors created the illusion of standing in a conservatory overlooking a wide stretch of exquisitely manicured garden. Around the periphery of the conservatory area stood marble-topped tables on intricately beautiful wrought-iron legs. As you gazed into the polished surface of the marble the vague forms of instruments became visible, and as you touched them the instruments materialized instantly under your hands. Looked at from the correct angles the mirrors appeared to reflect all the required data read-outs, though it was far from clear where they were reflected from. It was in fact sensationally beautiful.
Relaxing in a wickerwork sun chair, Zaphod Beeblebrox said, “What the hell happened?”
“Well, I was just saying,” said Arthur, lounging by a small fish pool, “there’s this Improbability Drive switch over here . . .” he waved at where it had been. There was a potted plant there now.
“But where are we?” said Ford, who was sitting on the spiral staircase, a nicely chilled Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster in his hand.
“Exactly where we were, I think . . .” said Trillian, as all about them the mirrors suddenly showed them an image of the blighted landscape of Magrathea, which still scooted along beneath them.
Zaphod leaped out of his seat.
“Then what’s happened to the missiles?” he said.
A new and astounding image appeared in the mirrors.
“They would appear,” said Ford doubtfully, “to have turned into a bowl of petunias and a very surprised-looking whale . . .”
“At an Improbability factor,” cut in Eddie, who hadn’t changed a bit, “of eight million, seven hundred and sixty-seven thousand, one hundred and twenty-eight to one against.”
Zaphod stared at Arthur.
“Did you think of that, Earthman?” he demanded.
“Well,” said Arthur, “all I did was . . .”
“That’s very good thinking, you know. Turn on the Improbability Drive for a second without first activating the proofing screens. Hey, kid, you just saved our lives, you know that?”
“Oh,” said Arthur, “well, it was nothing really . . . .”
“Was it?” said Zaphod. “Oh well, forget it then. Okay, computer, take us in to land.”
“But . . .”
“I said forget it.”
Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.
And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.
This is a complete record of its thought from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.
Ah . . . ! What’s happening? it thought.
Er, excuse me, who am I?
Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?
What do I mean by who am I?
Calm down, get a grip now . . . oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It’s a sort of . . . yawning, tingling sensation in my . . . my . . . well, I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let’s call it my stomach.
Good. Ooooh, it’s getting quite strong. And hey, what about this whistling roaring sound going past what I’m suddenly going to call my head? Perhaps I can call that . . . wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do . . . perhaps I can find a better name for it later when I’ve found out what it’s for. It must be something very important because there certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of it. Hey! What’s this thing? This . . . let’s call it a tail—yeah, tail. Hey! I can really thrash it about pretty good, can’t I? Wow! Wow! That feels great! Doesn’t seem to achieve very much but I’ll probably find out what it’s for later on. Now, have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?
Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation . . .
Or is it the wind?
There really is a lot of that now, isn’t there?
And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming toward me very fast? Very, very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide-sounding name like . . . ow . . . ound . . . round . . . ground! That’s it! That’s a good name—ground!
I wonder if it will be friends with me?
And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.