Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams

  - Oh, that, - said Prak. - Yeah. I was. I finished. There's not nearly as much of it as people imagine. Some of it's pretty funny, though.

  He suddenly exploded in about three seconds of manical laughter and stopped again. he sat there, jiggling his head and knees. He dragged on his cigarette with a strange half-smile.

  Ford and Zaphod came forward out of the shadows.

  - Tell us about it, - said Ford.

  - Oh, I can't remember any of it now, - said Prak. - I thought of writing some of it down, but first I couldn't find a pencil, and then I thought, why bother?

  There was a long silence, during which they thought they could feel the Universe age a little. Prak stared into the torchlight.

  - None of it? - said Arthur at last. - You can remember none of it?

  - No. Except most of the good bits were about frogs, I remember that.

  Suddenly he was hooting with laughter again and stamping his feet on the ground.

  - You would not believe some of the things about frogs, - he gasped.

  - Come on let's go and find ourselves a frog. Boy, will I ever see them in a new light! - He leapt to his feet and did a tiny little dance. Then he stopped and took a long drag at his cigarette.

  - Let's find a frog I can laugh at, - he said simply. - Anyway, who are you guys?

  - We came to find you, - said Trillian, deliberately not keeping the disappointment out of her voice. - My name is Trillian.

  Prak jiggled his head.

  - Ford Prefect, - said Ford Prefect with a shrug.

  Prak jiggled his head.

  - And I, - said Zaphod, when he judged that the silence was once again deep enough to allow an announcement of such gravity to be tossed in lightly, - am Zaphod Beeblebrox.

  Prak jiggled his head.

  - Who's this guy? - said Prak jiggling his shoulder at Arthur, who

  was standing silent for a moment, lost in disappointed thoughts.

  - Me? - said Arthur. - Oh, my name's Arthur Dent.

  Prak's eyes popped out of his head.

  - No kidding? - he yelped. - You are Arthur Dent? The Arthur Dent?

  He staggered backwards, clutching his stomach and convulsed with fresh paroxysms of laughter.

  - Hey, just think of meeting you! - he gasped. - Boy, - he shouted, - you are the most... wow, you just leave the frogs standing! - he howled and screamed with laughter. He fell over backwards on to the bench. He hollered and yelled in hysterics. He cried with laughter, he kicked his legs in the air, he beat his chest. Gradually he subsided, panting. He looked at them. He looked at Arthur. He fell back again howling with laughter. Eventually he fell asleep.

  Arthur stood there with his lips twitching whilst the others carried Prak comatose on to the ship.

  - Before we picked up Prak, - said Arthur, - I was going to leave. I still want to, and I think I should do so as soon as possible.

  The others nodded in silence, a silence which was only slightly undermined by the heavily muffled and distant sound of hysterical laughter which came drifting from Prak's cabin at the farthest end of the ship.

  - We have questioned him, - continued Arthur, - or at least, you have questioned him - I, as you know, can't go near him - on everything, and he doesn't really seem to have anything to contribute. Just the occasional snippet, and things I don't want to hear about frogs.

  The others tried not to smirk.

  - Now, I am the first to appreciate a joke, - said Arthur and then had to wait for the others to stop laughing.

  - I am the first... - he stopped again. This time he stopped and listened to the silence. There actually was silence this time, and it had come very suddenly.

  Prak was quiet. For days they had lived with constant manical laughter ringing round the ship, only occasionally relieved by short periods of light giggling and sleep. Arthur's very soul was clenched with paranoia.

  This was not the silence of sleep. A buzzer sounded. A glance at a board told them that the buzzer had been sounded by Prak.

  - He's not well, - said Trillian quietly. - The constant laughing is completely wrecking his body.

  Arthur's lips twitched but he said nothing.

  - We'd better go and see him, - said Trillian.

  Trillian came out of the cabin wearing her serious face.

  - He wants you to go in, - she said to Arthur, who was wearing his glum and tight-lipped one. He thrust his hands deep into his dressing-gown pockets and tried to think of something to say which wouldn't sound petty. It seemed terribly unfair, but he couldn't.

  - Please, - said Trillian.

  He shrugged and went in, taking his glum and tight-lipped face with him, despite the reaction this always provoked from Prak.

  He looked down at his tormentor, who was lying quietly on the bed, ashen and wasted. His breathing was very shallow. Ford and Zaphod were standing by the bed looking awkward.

  - You wanted to ask me something, - said Prak in a thin voice and coughed slightly.

  Just the cough made Arthur stiffen, but it passed and subsided.

  - How do you know that? - he asked.

  Prak shrugged weakly.

  - 'Cos it's true, - he said simply.

  Arthur took the point.

  - Yes, - he said at last in rather a strained drawl. - I did have a question. Or rather, what I actually have is an Answer. I wanted to know what the Question was.

  Prak nodded sympathetically, and Arthur relaxed a little.

  - It's... well, it's a long story, - he said, - but the Question I would like to know is the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. All we know is that the Answer is Forty-Two, which is a little aggravating.

  Prak nodded again.

  - Forty-Two, - he said. - Yes, that's right.

  He paused. Shadows of thought and memory crossed his face like the shadows of clouds crossing the land.

  - I'm afraid, - he said at last, - that the Question and the Answer are mutually exclusive. Knowledge of one logically precludes knowledge of the other. It is impossible that both can ever be known about the same universe.

  He paused again. Disappointment crept into Arthur's face and snuggled down into its accustomed place.

  - Except, - said Prak, struggling to sort a thought out, - if it happened, it seems that the Question and the Answer would just cancel each other out and take the Universe with them, which would then be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. It is possible that this has already happened, - he added with a weak smile, - but there is a certain amount of Uncertainty about it.

  A little giggle brushed through him.

  Arthur sat down on a stool.

  - Oh well, - he said with resignation, - I was just hoping there would be some sort of reason.

  - Do you know, - said Prak, - the story of the Reason?

  Arthur said that he didn't, and Prak said that he knew that he didn't.

  He told it.

  One night, he said, a spaceship appeared in the sky of a planet which had never seen one before. The planet was Dalforsas, the ship was this one. It appeared as a brilliant new star moving silently across the heavens.

  Primitive tribesmen who were sitting huddled on the Cold Hillsides looked up from their steaming night-drinks and pointed with trembling fingers, swearing that they had seen a sign, a sign from their gods which meant that they must now arise at last and go and slay the evil Princes of the Plains.

  In the high turrets of their palaces, the Princes of the Plains looked up and saw the shining star, and received it unmistakably as a sign from their gods that they must now go and set about the accursed Tribesmen of the Cold Hillsides.

  And between them, the Dwellers in the Forest looked up into the sky and saw the sigh of the new star, and saw it with fear and apprehension, for though they had never seen anything like it before, they too knew precisely what it foreshadowed, and they bowed their heads in despair.

  They knew that when the rains came, it was a sign.

the rains departed, it was a sign.

  When the winds rose, it was a sign.

  When the winds fell, it was a sign.

  When in the land there was born at midnight of a full moon a goat with three heads, that was a sign.

  When in the land there was born at some time in the afternoon a perfectly normal cat or pig with no birth complications at all, or even just a child with a retrousse nose, that too would often be taken as a sign.

  So there was no doubt at all that a new star in the sky was a sign of a particularly spectacular order.

  And each new sign signified the same thing - that the Princes of the Plains and the Tribesmen of the Cold Hillsides were about to beat the hell out of each other again.

  This in itself wouldn't be so bad, except that the Princes of the Plains and the Tribesmen of the Cold Hillsides always elected to beat the hell out of each other in the Forest, and it was always the Dwellers in the Forest who came off worst in these exchanges, though as far as they could see it never had anything to do with them.

  And sometimes, after some of the worst of these outrages, the Dwellers in the Forest would send a messenger to either the leader of the Princes of the Plains or the leader of the Tribesmen of the Cold Hillsides and demand to know the reason for this intolerable behaviour.

  And the leader, whichever one it was, would take the messenger aside and explain the Reason to him, slowly and carefully and with great attention to the considerable detail involved.

  And the terrible thing was, it was a very good one. It was very clear, very rational, and tough. The messenger would hang his head and feel sad and foolish that he had not realized what a tough and complex place the real world was, and what difficulties and paradoxes had to be embraced if one was to live in it.

  - Now do you understand? - the leader would say.

  The messenger would nod dumbly.

  - And you see these battles have to take place?

  Another dumb nod.

  - And why they have to take place in the forest, and why it is in everybody's best interest, the Forest Dwellers included, that they should?

  - Er...

  - In the long run.

  - Er, yes.

  And the messenger did understand the Reason, and he returned to his people in the Forest. But as he approached them, as he walked through the Forest and amongst the trees, he found that all he could remember of the Reason was how terribly clear the argument had seemed. What it actually was he couldn't remember at all.

  And this, of course, was a great comfort when next the Tribesmen and the Princes came hacking and burning their way through the Forest, killing every Forest Dweller in their way.

  Prak paused in his story and coughed pathetically.

  - I was the messenger, - he said, - after the battles precipitated by the appearance of your ship, which were particularly savage. Many of our people died. I thought I could bring the Reason back. I went and was told it by the leader of the Princes, but on the way back it slipped and melted away in my mind like snow in the sun. That was many years ago, and much has happened since then.

  He looked up at Arthur and giggled again very gently.

  - There is one other thing I can remember from the truth drug. Apart from the frogs, and that is God's last message to his creation. Would you like to hear it?

  For a moment they didn't know whether to take him seriously.

  - 'Strue, - he said. - For real. I mean it.

  His chest heaved weakly and he struggled for breath. His head lolled slightly.

  - I wasn't very impressed with it when I first knew what it was, - he said, - but now I think back to how impressed I was by the Prince's Reason, and how soon afterwards I couldn't recall it at all, I think it might be a lot more helpful. Would you like to know what it is? Would you?

  They nodded dumbly.

  - I bet you would. If you're that interested I suggest you go and look for it. It is written in thirty-foot-high letters of fire on top of the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains in the land of Sevorbeupstry on the planet Preliumtarn, third out from the sun Zarss in Galactic Sector QQ7 Active J Gamma. It is guarded by the Lajestic Vantrashell of Lob.

  There was a long silence following this announcement, which was finally broken by Arthur.

  - Sorry, it's where? - he said.

  - It is written, - repeated Prak, - in thirty-foot-high letters of fire on top of the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains in the land of Sevorbeupstry on the planet Preliumtarn, third out from the...

  - Sorry, - said Arthur again, - which mountains?

  - The Quentulus Quazgar Mountains in the land of Sevorbeupstry on the planet...

  - Which land was that? I didn't quite catch it.

  - Sevorbeupstry, on the planet...

  - Sevorbe-what?

  - Oh, for heaven's sake, - said Prak and died testily.

  In the following days Arthur thought a little about this message, but in the end he decided that he was not going to allow himself to be drawn by it, and insisted on following his original plan of finding a nice little world somewhere to settle down and lead a quiet retired life. Having saved the Universe twice in one day he thought that he could take things a little easier from now on.

  They dropped him off on the planet Krikkit, which was now once again an idyllic pastoral world, even if the songs did occasionally get on his nerves.

  He spent a lot of time flying.

  He learnt to communicate with birds and discovered that their conversation was fantastically boring. It was all to do with wind speed, wing spans, power-to-weight ratios and a fair bit about berries. Unfortunately, he discovered, once you have learnt birdspeak you quickly come to realize that the air is full of it the whole time, just inane bird chatter. There is no getting away from it.

  For that reason Arthur eventually gave up the sport and learnt to live on the ground and love it, despite a lot of the inane chatter he heard down there as well.

  One day, he was walking through the fields humming a ravishing tune he'd heard recently when a silver spaceship descended from the sky and landed in front of him.

  A hatchway opened, a ramp extended, and a tall grey-green alien marched out and approached him.

  - Arthur Phili... - it said, then glanced sharply at him and down at his clipboard. He frowned. He looked up at him again.

  - I've done you before haven't I? - he said.

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  Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

  (Series: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy # 3)




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