The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Read online
"I can do that for you, sure," enthused the computer, punching out more tickertape. "I can even work out you 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."
"OK, OK," 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 sceptical 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 colour 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 burnt 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 on to 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--grey, 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 grey 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.
"Alright, just supposing there's something. I take it you're not here for the sheer industrial archaeology 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 in any way be exacerbated that the following facts will now be revealed in advance.
The planet in question is in fact the legendary Magrathea.
The deadly missile attack shortly to be launched by an ancient automatic defence system will result merely in the breakage of three coffee cups and a micecage, 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 sustained the bruise. This fact may safely be made the subject of suspense since it is of no significance whatsoever.
After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur's mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shellshocked 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 Drink 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 centres 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 land masses 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 greyness slide past. It suddenly occurred to him to ask a question which 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 "Greetings to you . . ."
Someone from the dead planet was talking to them.
"Computer!" shouted Zaphod.