The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams


  It wasn't all the same to Ford Prefect after all.

  "Come on now . . . but look!" he said, less slowly, less brightly.

  "Huhhhhgggggggnnnnnnn . . ." said Arthur without any clear inflection.

  "But hang on," pursued Ford, "there's music and art and things to tell you about yet! Arrrggghhh!"

  "Resistance is useless," bellowed the guard, and then added, "You see if I keep it up I can eventually get promoted to Senior Shouting Officer, and there aren't usually many vacancies for non-shouting and non-pushing-people-about officers, so I think I'd better stick to what I know."

  They had now reached the airlock--a large circular steel hatchway of massive strength and weight let into the inner skin of the craft. The guard operated a control and the hatchway swung smoothly open.

  "But thanks for taking an interest," said the Vogon guard. "Bye now." He flung Ford and Arthur through the hatchway into the small chamber within. Arthur lay panting for breath. Ford scrambled round and flung his shoulder uselessly against the reclosing hatchway.

  "But listen," he shouted to the guard, "there's a whole world you don't know anything about . . . here, how about this?" Desperately he grabbed for the only bit of culture he knew offhand--he hummed the first bar of Beethoven's Fifth.

  "Da da da dum! Doesn't that stir anything in you?"

  "No," said the guard, "not really. But I'll mention it to my aunt."

  If he said anything further after that it was lost. The hatchway sealed itself tight, and all sound was lost but the faint distant hum of the ship's engines.

  They were in a brightly polished cylindrical chamber about six feet in diameter and ten feet long.

  "Potentially bright lad I thought," he said and slumped against the curved wall.

  Arthur was still lying in the curve of the floor where he had fallen. He didn't look up. He just lay panting.

  "We're trapped now, aren't we?"

  "Yes," said Ford, "we're trapped."

  "Well, didn't you think of anything? I thought you said you were going to think of something. Perhaps you thought of something and didn't notice."

  "Oh yes, I thought of something," panted Ford. Arthur looked up expectantly.

  "But unfortunately," continued Ford, "it rather involved being on the other side of this airtight hatchway." He kicked the hatch they'd just been through.

  "But it was a good idea, was it?"

  "Oh yes, very neat."

  "What was it?"

  "Well, I hadn't worked out the details yet. Not much point now, is there?"

  "So . . . er, what happens next?"

  "Oh, er, well, the hatchway in front of us will open automatically in a few moments and we will shoot out into deep space I expect and asphyxicate. If you take a lungful of air with you you can last for up to thirty seconds, of course . . ." said Ford. He stuck his hands behind his back, raised his eyebrows and started to hum an old Betelgeusian battle hymn. To Arthur's eyes he suddenly looked very alien.

  "So this is it," said Arthur, "we're going to die."

  "Yes," said Ford, "except . . . no! Wait a minute!" he suddenly lunged across the chamber at something behind Arthur's line of vision. "What's this switch?" he cried.

  "What? Where?" cried Arthur twisting round.

  "No, I was only fooling," said Ford, "we are going to die after all."

  He slumped against the wall again and carried on the tune from where he left off.

  "You know," said Arthur, "it's at times like this, when I'm trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxication in deep space that I really wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was young."

  "Why, what did she tell you?"

  "I don't know, I didn't listen."

  "Oh." Ford carried on humming.

  "This is terrific," Arthur thought to himself, "Nelson's Column has gone, McDonald's have gone, all that's left is me and the words Mostly Harmless. Any second now all that will be left is Mostly Harmless. And yesterday the planet seemed to be going so well."

  A motor whirred.

  A slight hiss built into a deafening roar of rushing air as the outer hatchway opened on to an empty blackness studded with tiny impossibly bright points of light. Ford and Arthur popped into outer space like corks from a toy gun.

  Chapter 8

  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times over many years and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers.

  The introduction begins like this:

  "Space," it says, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space. Listen . . ." and so on.

  (After a while the style settles down a bit and it begins to tell you things you really need to know, like the fact that the fabulously beautiful planet Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion by ten billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your bodyweight when you leave: so every time you go to the lavatory it is vitally important to get a receipt.)

  To be fair though, when confronted by the sheer enormity of distances between the stars, better minds than the one responsible for the Guide's introduction have faltered. Some invite you to consider for a moment a peanut in reading and a small walnut in Johannesburg, and other such dizzying concepts.

  The simple truth is that interstellar distances will not fit into the human imagination.

  Even light, which travels so fast that it takes most races thousands of years to realize that it travels at all, takes time to journey between the stars. It takes eight minutes from the star Sol to the place where the Earth used to be, and four years more to arrive at Sol's nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Proxima.

  For light to reach the other side of the Galaxy, for it to reach Damogran for instance, takes rather longer: five hundred thousand years.

  The record for hitch hiking this distance is just under five years, but you don't get to see much on the way.

  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy says that if you hold a lungful of air you can survive in the total vacuum of space for about thirty seconds. However, it does go on to say that what with space being the mind-boggling size it is the chances of getting picked up by another ship within those thirty seconds are two to the power of two hundred and sixty-seven thousand seven hundred and nine to one against.

  By a totally staggering coincidence that is also the telephone number of an Islington flat where Arthur once went to a very good party and met a very nice girl whom he totally failed to get off with--she went off with a gatecrasher.

  Though the planet Earth, the Islington flat and the telephone have all now been demolished, it is comforting to reflect that they are all in some small way commemorated by the fact that twenty-nine seconds later Ford and Arthur were rescued.

  Chapter 9

  A computer chatted to itself in alarm as it noticed an airlock open and close itself for no apparent reason.

  This was because Reason was in fact out to lunch.

  A hole had just appeared in the Galaxy. It was exactly a nothingth of a second long, a nothingth of an inch wide, and quite a lot of million light years from end to end.

  As it closed up lots of paper hats and party balloons fell out of it and drifted off through the universe. A team of seven three-foot-high market analysts fell out of it and died, partly of asphyxication, partly of surprise.

  Two hundred and thirty-nine thousand lightly fried eggs fell out of it too, materializing in a large woobly heap on the famine-struck land of Poghril in the Pansel system.

  The whole Poghril tribe had died out from famine except for one last man who died of cholesterol poisoning some weeks later.

  The nothingth of a second for which the hole existe
d reverberated backwards and forwards through time in a most improbable fashion. Somewhere in the deeply remote past it seriously traumatized a small random group of atoms drifting through the empty sterility of space and made them cling together in the most extraordinarily unlikely patterns. These patterns quickly learnt to copy themselves (this was part of what was so extraordinary of the patterns) and went on to cause massive trouble on every planet they drifted on to. That was how life began in the Universe.

  Five wild Event Maelstroms swirled in vicious storms of unreason and spewed up a pavement.

  On the pavement lay Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent gulping like half-spent fish.

  "There you are," gasped Ford, scrabbling for a fingerhold on the pavement as it raced through the Third Reach of the Unknown, "I told you I'd think of something."

  "Oh sure," said Arthur, "sure."

  "Bright idea of mine," said Ford, "to find a passing spaceship and get rescued by it."

  The real universe arched sickeningly away beneath them. Various pretend ones flitted silently by, like mountain goats. Primal light exploded, splattering space-time as with gobbets of junket. Time blossomed, matter shrank away. The highest prime number coalesced quietly in a corner and hid itself away for ever.

  "Oh come off it," said Arthur, "the chances against it were astronomical."

  "Don't knock it, it worked," said Ford.

  "What sort of ship are we in?" asked Arthur as the pit of eternity yawned beneath them.

  "I don't know," said Ford, "I haven't opened my eyes yet."

  "No, nor have I," said Arthur.

  The Universe jumped, froze, quivered and splayed out in several unexpected directions.

  Arthur and Ford opened their eyes and looked about in considerable surprise.

  "Good god," said Arthur, "it looks just like the sea front at Southend."

  "Hell, I'm relieved to hear you say that," said Ford.

  "Why?"

  "Because I thought I must be going mad."

  "Perhaps you are. Perhaps you only thought I said it."

  Ford thought about this.

  "Well, did you say it or didn't you?" he asked.

  "I think so," said Arthur.

  "Well, perhaps we're both going mad."

  "Yes," said Arthur, "we'd be mad, all things considered, to think this was Southend."

  "Well, do you think this is Southend?"

  "Oh yes."

  "So do I."

  "Therefore we must be mad."

  "Nice day for it."

  "Yes," said a passing maniac.

  "Who was that?" asked Arthur.

  "Who--the man with the five heads and the elderberry bush full of kippers?"

  "Yes."

  "I don't know. Just someone."

  "Ah."

  They both sat on the pavement and watched with a certain unease as huge children bounced heavily along the sand and wild horses thundered through the sky taking fresh supplies of reinforced railings to the Uncertain Areas.

  "You know," said Arthur with a slight cough, "if this is Southend, there's something very odd about it . . ."

  "You mean the way the sea stays steady and the buildings keep washing up and down?" said Ford. "Yes I thought that was odd too. In fact," he continued as with a huge bang Southend split itself into six equal segments which danced and span giddily round each other in lewd and licentious formation, "there is something altogether very strange going on."

  Wild yowling noises of pipes and strings seared through the wind, hot doughnuts popped out of the road for ten pence each, horrid fish stormed out of the sky and Arthur and Ford decided to make a run for it.

  They plunged through heavy walls of sound, mountains of archaic thought, valleys of mood music, bad shoe sessions and footling bats and suddenly heard a girl's voice.

  It sounded quite a sensible voice, but it just said, "Two to the power of one hundred thousand to one against and falling," and that was all.

  Ford skidded down a beam of light and span round trying to find a source for the voice but could see nothing he could seriously believe in.

  "What was that voice?" shouted Arthur.

  "I don't know," yelled Ford, "I don't know. It sounded like a measurement of probability."

  "Probability? What do you mean?"

  "Probability. You know, like two to one, three to one, five to four against. It said two to the power of one hundred thousand to one against. That's pretty improbable, you know."

  A million-gallon vat of custard upended itself over them without warning.

  "But what does it mean?" cried Arthur.

  "What, the custard?"

  "No, the measurement of probability!"

  "I don't know. I don't know at all. I think we're on some kind of spaceship."

  "I can only assume," said Arthur, "that this is not the first-class compartment."

  Bulges appeared in the fabric of space-time. Great ugly bulges.

  "Haaaauuurrgghhh . . ." said Arthur as he felt his body softening and bending in unusual directions. "Southend seems to be melting away . . . the stars are swirling . . . a dustbowl . . . my legs are drifting off into the sunset . . . my left arm's come off too." A frightening thought struck him: "Hell," he said, "how am I going to operate my digital watch now?" He wound his eyes desperately around in Ford's direction.

  "Ford," he said, "you're turning into a penguin. Stop it."

  Again came the voice.

  "Two to the power of seventy-five thousand to one against and falling."

  Ford waddled around his pond in a furious circle.

  "Hey, who are you," he quacked. "Where are you? What's going on and is there any way of stopping it?"

  "Please relax," said the voice pleasantly, like a stewardess in an airliner with only one wing and two engines one of which is on fire, "you are perfectly safe."

  "But that's not the point!" raged Ford. "The point is that I am now a perfectly save penguin, and my colleague here is rapidly running out of limbs!"

  "It's alright, I've got them back now," said Arthur.

  "Two to the power of fifty thousand to one against and falling," said the voice.

  "Admittedly," said Arthur, "they're longer than I usually like them, but . . ."

  "Isn't there anything," squawked Ford in avian fury, "you feel you ought to be telling us?"

  The voice cleared its throat. A giant petit four lolloped off into the distance.

  "Welcome," the voice said, "to the Starship Heart of Gold."

  The voice continued.

  "Please do not be alarmed," it said, "by anything you see or hear around you. You are bound to feel some initial ill effects as you have been rescued from certain death at an improbability level of two to the power of two hundred and seventy-six thousand to one against--possibly much higher. We are now cruising at a level of two to the power of twenty-five thousand to one against and falling, and we will be restoring normality just as soon as we are sure what is normal anyway. Thank you. Two to the power of twenty thousand to one against and falling."

  The voice cut out.

  Ford and Arthur were in a small luminous pink cubicle.

  Ford was wildly excited.

  "Arthur!" he said, "this is fantastic! We've been picked up by a ship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive! This is incredible! I heard rumors about it before! They were all officially denied, but they must have done it! They've built the Improbability Drive! Arthur, this is . . . Arthur? What's happening?"

  Arthur had jammed himself against the door to the cubicle, trying to hold it closed, but it was ill fitting. Tiny furry little hands were squeezing themselves through the cracks, their fingers were inkstained; tiny voices chattered insanely.

  Arthur looked up.

  "Ford!" he said, "there's an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out."

  Chapter 10

  The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstella
r distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace.

  It was discovered by a lucky chance, and then developed into a governable form of propulsion by the Galactic Government's research team on Damogran.

  This, briefly, is the story of its discovery.

  The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood--and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess's undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the Theory of Indeterminacy.

  Many respectable physicists said that they weren't going to stand for this--partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn't get invited to those sort of parties.

  Another thing they couldn't stand was the perpetual failure they encountered in trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralysing distances between the furthest stars, and in the end they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.

  Then, one day, a student who had been left to sweep up the lab after a particularly unsuccessful party found himself reasoning this way:

  If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea . . . and turn it on!

  He did this, and was rather startled to discover that he had managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air.

  It startled him even more when just after he was awarded the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness he got lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had finally realized that the one thing they really couldn't stand was a smartass.

  Chapter 11

  The Improbability-proof control cabin of the Heart of Gold looked like a perfectly conventional spaceship except that it was perfectly clean because it was so new. Some of the control seats hadn't had the plastic wrapping taken off yet. The cabin was mostly white, oblong, and about the size of a smallish restaurant. In fact it wasn't perfectly oblong: the two long walls were raked round in a slight parallel curve, and all the angles and corners were contoured in excitingly chunky shapes. The truth of the matter is that it would have been a great deal simpler and more practical to build the cabin as an ordinary three-dimensional oblong room, but then the designers would have got miserable. As it was the cabin looked excitingly purposeful, with large video screens ranged over the control and guidance system panels on the concave wall, and long banks of computers set into the convex wall. In one corner a robot sat humped, its gleaming brushed steel head hanging loosely between its gleaming brushed steel knees. It too was fairly new, but though it was beautifully constructed and polished it somehow looked as if the various parts of its more or less humanoid body didn't quite fit properly. In fact they fitted perfectly well, but something in its bearing suggested that they might have fitted better.

 
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