Read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Online
Authors: Douglas Adams
The Heart of Gold fled on silently through the night of space, now on conventional photon drive. Its crew of four were ill at ease knowing that they had been brought together not of their own volition or by simple coincidence, but by some curious perversion of physics—as if relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules.
As the ship’s artificial night closed in they were each grateful to retire to separate cabins and try to rationalize their thoughts.
Trillian couldn’t sleep. She sat on a couch and stared at a small cage which contained her last and only links with Earth— two white mice that she had insisted Zaphod let her bring. She had expected never to see the planet again, but she was disturbed by her negative reaction to the news of the planet’s destruction. It seemed remote and unreal and she could find no thoughts to think about it. She watched the mice scurrying round the cage and running furiously in their little plastic tread-wheels till they occupied her whole attention. Suddenly she shook herself and went back on to the bridge to watch over the tiny flashing lights and figures that charted the ship’s progress through the void. She wished she knew what it was she was trying not to think about.
Zaphod couldn’t sleep. He also wished he knew what it was that he wouldn’t let himself think about. For as long as he could remember he’d suffered from a vague nagging feeling of being not all there. Most of the time he was able to put this thought aside and not worry about it, but it had been reawakened by the sudden, inexplicable arrival of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent. Somehow it seemed to conform to a pattern that he couldn’t see.
Ford couldn’t sleep. He was too excited about being back on the road again. Fifteen years of virtual imprisonment were over, just as he was finally beginning to give up hope. Knocking about with Zaphod for a bit promised to be a lot of fun, though there seemed to be something faintly odd about his semicousin that he couldn’t put his finger on. The fact that he had become President of the Galaxy was frankly astonishing, as was the manner of his leaving the post. Was there a reason behind it? There would be no point in asking Zaphod, he never appeared to have a reason for anything he did at all: he had turned unfathomability into an art form. He attacked everything in life with a mixture of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence and it was often difficult to tell which was which.
Arthur slept: he was terribly tired.
There was a tap at Zaphod’s door. It slid open.
“Zaphod . . . ?”
Trillian stood outlined in an oval of light.
“I think we just found what you came to look for.”
Ford gave up the attempt to sleep. In the corner of his cabin was a small computer screen and keyboard. He sat at it for a while and tried to compose a new entry for the
on the subject of Vogons but couldn’t think of anything vitriolic enough so he gave that up too, wrapped a robe round himself and went for a walk to the bridge.
As he entered he was surprised to see two figures hunched excitedly over the instruments.
“See? The ship’s about to move into orbit,” Trillian was saying. “There’s a planet out there. It’s at the exact coordinates you predicted.”
Zaphod heard a noise and looked up.
“Ford!” he hissed. “Hey, come and take a look at this.”
Ford went and had a look at it. It was a series of figures flickering over a screen.
“You recognize those Galactic coordinates?” said Zaphod.
“I’ll give you a clue. Computer!”
“Hi, gang!” enthused the computer. “This is getting real sociable, isn’t it?”
“Shut up,” said Zaphod, “and show up the screens.”
Light on the bridge sank. Pinpoints of light played across the consoles and reflected in four pairs of eyes that stared up at the external monitor screens.
There was absolutely nothing on them.
“Recognize that?” whispered Zaphod.
“Er, no,” he said.
“What do you see?”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re in the Horsehead Nebula. One whole vast dark cloud.”
“And I was meant to recognize that from a blank screen?”
“Inside a dark nebula is the only place in the Galaxy you’d see a dark screen.”
Zaphod laughed. He was clearly very excited about something, almost childishly so.
“Hey, this is really terrific, this is just far too much!”
“What’s so great about being stuck in a dust cloud?” said Ford.
“What would you reckon to find here?” urged Zaphod.
“No stars? No planets?”
“Computer!” shouted Zaphod, “rotate angle of vision through one-eighty degrees and don’t talk about it!”
For a moment it seemed that nothing was happening, then a brightness glowed at the edge of the huge screen. A red star the size of a small plate crept across it followed quickly by another one—a binary system. Then a vast crescent sliced into the corner of the picture—a red glare shading away into deep black, the night side of the planet.
“I’ve found it!” cried Zaphod, thumping the console. “I’ve found it!”
Ford stared at it in astonishment.
“What is it?” he said.
“That . . .” said Zaphod, “is the most improbable planet that ever existed.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
page 634784, section 5a. Entry: Magrathea)
Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the former Galactic Empire, life was wild, rich and largely tax free.
Mighty starships plied their way between exotic suns, seeking adventure and reward among the furthest reaches of Galactic space. In
those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men,
women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri
were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to
brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that
no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged.
Many men of course became extremely rich, but this was perfectly
natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor—
at least no one worth speaking of. And for all the richest and most successful merchants life inevitably became rather dull and niggly, and they
began to imagine that this was therefore the fault of the worlds they’d
settled on. None of them was entirely satisfactory: either the climate
wasn’t quite right in the later part of the afternoon, or the day was half
an hour too long, or the sea was exactly the wrong shade of pink.
And thus were created the conditions for a staggering new form
of specialist industry: custom-made luxury planet building. The home
of this industry was the planet Magrathea, where hyperspatial engineers sucked matter through white holes in space to form it into dream
planets—gold planets, platinum planets, soft rubber planets with lots of
earthquakes—all lovingly made to meet the exacting standards that the
Galaxy’s richest men naturally came to expect.
But so successful was this venture that Magrathea itself soon became
the richest planet of all time and the rest of the Galaxy was reduced to
abject poverty. And so the system broke down, the Empire collapsed,
and a long sullen silence settled over a billion hungry worlds, disturbed
only by the pen scratchings of scholars as they labored into the night over
smug little treatises on the value of a planned political economy.
Magrathea itself disappeared and its memory soon passed into the
obscurity of legend.
In these enlightened days, of course, no one believes a word of it.
Arthur awoke to the sound of argument and went to the bridge. Ford was waving his arms about.
“You’re crazy, Zaphod,” he was saying, “Magrathea is a myth, a fairy story, it’s what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to become economists, it’s . . .”
“And that’s what we are currently in orbit about,” insisted Zaphod.
“Look, I can’t help what you may personally be in orbit around,” said Ford, “but this ship . . .”
“Computer!” shouted Zaphod.
“Oh no . . .”
“Hi there! This is Eddie, your shipboard computer, and I’m feeling just great, guys, and I know I’m just going to get a bundle of kicks out of any program you care to run through me.”
Arthur looked inquiringly at Trillian. She motioned him to come on in but keep quiet.
“Computer,” said Zaphod, “tell us what our present trajectory is.”
“A real pleasure, feller,” it burbled; “we are currently in orbit at an altitude of three hundred miles around the legendary planet of Magrathea.”
“Proving nothing,” said Ford. “I wouldn’t trust that computer to speak my weight.”
“I can do that for you, sure,” enthused the computer, punching out more ticker tape. “I can even work out your personality problems to ten decimal places if it will help.”
“Zaphod,” she said, “any minute now we will be swinging round to the daylight side of this planet,” adding, “whatever it turns out to be.”
“Hey, what do you mean by that? The planet’s where I predicted it would be, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I know there’s a planet there. I’m not arguing with anyone, it’s just that I wouldn’t know Magrathea from any other lump of cold rock. Dawn’s coming up if you want it.”
“Okay, okay,” muttered Zaphod, “let’s at least give our eyes a good time. Computer!”
“Hi there! What can I . . .”
“Just shut up and give us a view of the planet again.”
A dark featureless mass once more filled the screens—the planet rolling away beneath them.
They watched for a moment in silence, but Zaphod was fidgety with excitement.
“We are now traversing the night side . . .” he said in a hushed voice. The planet rolled on.
“The surface of the planet is now three hundred miles beneath us . . .” he continued. He was trying to restore a sense of occasion to what he felt should have been a great moment. Magrathea! He was piqued by Ford’s skeptical reaction. Magrathea!
“In a few seconds,” he continued, “we should see . . . there!”
The moment carried itself. Even the most seasoned star tramp can’t help but shiver at the spectacular drama of a sunrise seen from space, but a binary sunrise is one of the marvels of the Galaxy.
Out of the utter blackness stabbed a sudden point of blinding light. It crept up by slight degrees and spread sideways in a thin crescent blade, and within seconds two suns were visible, furnaces of light, searing the black edge of the horizon with white fire. Fierce shafts of color streaked through the thin atmosphere beneath them.
“The fires of dawn . . . !” breathed Zaphod. “The twin suns of Soulianis and Rahm . . . !”
“Or whatever,” said Ford quietly.
“Soulianis and Rahm!” insisted Zaphod.
The suns blazed into the pitch of space and a low ghostly music floated through the bridge: Marvin was humming ironically because he hated humans so much.
As Ford gazed at the spectacle of light before them excitement burned inside him, but only the excitement of seeing a strange new planet; it was enough for him to see it as it was. It faintly irritated him that Zaphod had to impose some ludicrous fantasy onto the scene to make it work for him. All this Magrathea nonsense seemed juvenile. Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
All this Magrathea business seemed totally incomprehensible to Arthur. He edged up to Trillian and asked her what was going on.
“I only know what Zaphod’s told me,” she whispered. “Apparently Magrathea is some kind of legend from way back which no one seriously believes in. Bit like Atlantis on Earth, except that the legends say the Magratheans used to manufacture planets.”
Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he realized what it was.
“Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.
More of the planet was unfolding beneath them as the Heart of Gold streaked along its orbital path. The suns now stood high in the black sky, the pyrotechnics of dawn were over, and the surface of the planet appeared bleak and forbidding in the common light of day—gray, dusty and only dimly contoured. It looked dead and cold as a crypt. From time to time promising features would appear on the distant horizon—ravines, maybe mountains, maybe even cities—but as they approached the lines would soften and blur into anonymity and nothing would transpire. The planet’s surface was blurred by time, by the slow movement of the thin stagnant air that had crept across it for century upon century.
Clearly, it was very very old.
A moment of doubt came to Ford as he watched the gray landscape move beneath them. The immensity of time worried him, he could feel it as a presence. He cleared his throat.
“Well, even supposing it is . . .”
“It is,” said Zaphod.
“Which it isn’t,” continued Ford. “What do you want with it anyway? There’s nothing there.”
“Not on the surface,” said Zaphod.
“All right, just supposing there’s something, I take it you’re not here for the sheer industrial archeology of it all. What are you after?”
One of Zaphod’s heads looked away. The other one looked round to see what the first was looking at, but it wasn’t looking at anything very much.
“Well,” said Zaphod airily, “it’s partly the curiosity, partly a sense of adventure, but mostly I think it’s the fame and the money. . . .”
Ford glanced at him sharply. He got a very strong impression that Zaphod hadn’t the faintest idea why he was there at all.
“You know, I don’t like the look of that planet at all,” said Trillian, shivering.
“Ah, take no notice,” said Zaphod; “with half the wealth of the former Galactic Empire stored on it somewhere it can afford to look frumpy.”
Bullshit, thought Ford. Even supposing this was the home of some ancient civilization now gone to dust, even supposing a number of exceedingly unlikely things, there was no way that vast treasures of wealth were going to be stored there in any form that would still have meaning now. He shrugged.
“I think it’s just a dead planet,” he said.
“The suspense is killing me,” said Arthur testily.
Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the Galaxy, and it is in order that this situation should not be in any way exacerbated that the following facts will now be revealed in advance.
The planet in question
in fact the legendary Magrathea.
The deadly missile attack shortly to be launched by an ancient automatic defense system will result merely in the breakage of three coffee cups and a mouse cage, the bruising of somebody’s upper arm, and the untimely creation and sudden demise of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale.
In order that some sense of mystery should still be preserved, no revelation will yet be made concerning whose upper arm sustains the bruise. This fact may safely be made the subject of suspense since it is of no significance whatsoever.