The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Read online

Page 14



  Arthur felt extraordinarily lonely stuck up in the air above it all without so much as a body to his name, but before he had time to reflect on this a voice rang out across the square and called for everyone's attention.

  A man standing on a brightly dressed dais before the building which clearly dominated the square was addressing the crowd over a Tannoy.

  "O people waiting in the Shadow of Deep Thought!" he cried out. "Honoured Descendants of Vroomfondel and Majikthise, the Greatest and Most Truly Interesting Pundits the Universe has ever known . . . The Time of Waiting is over!"

  Wild cheers broke out amongst the crowd. Flags, streamers and wolf whistles sailed through the air. The narrower streets looked rather like centipedes rolled over on their backs and frantically waving their legs in the air.

  "Seven and a half million years our race has waited for this Great and Hopefully Enlightening Day!" cried the cheer leader. "The Day of the Answer!"

  Hurrahs burst from the ecstatic crowd.

  "Never again," cried the man, "never again will we wake up in the morning and think Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don't get up and go to work? For today we will finally learn once and for all the plain and simple answer to all these nagging little problems of Life, the Universe and Everything!"

  As the crowd erupted once again, Arthur found himself gliding through the air and down towards one of the large stately windows on the first floor of the building behind the dais from which the speaker was addressing the crowd.

  He experienced a moment's panic as he sailed straight through towards the window, which passed when a second or so later he found he had gone right through the solid glass without apparently touching it.

  No one in the room remarked on his peculiar arrival, which is hardly surprising as he wasn't there. He began to realize that the whole experience was merely a recorded projection which knocked six-track seventy-millimetre into a cocked hat.

  The room was much as Slartibartfast had described it. In seven and a half million years it had been well looked after and cleaned regularly every century or so. The ultramahagony desk was worn at the edges, the carpet a little faded now, but the large computer terminal sat in sparkling glory on the desk's leather top, as bright as if it had been constructed yesterday.

  Two severely dressed men sat respectfully before the terminal and waited.

  "The time is nearly upon us," said one, and Arthur was surprised to see a word suddenly materialize in thin air just by the man's neck. The word was Loonquawl, and it flashed a couple of times and the disappeared again. Before Arthur was able to assimilate this the other man spoke and the word Phouchg appeared by his neck.

  "Seventy-five thousand generations ago, our ancestors set this program in motion," the second man said, "and in all that time we will be the first to hear the computer speak."

  "An awesome prospect, Phouchg," agreed the first man, and Arthur suddenly realized that he was watching a recording with subtitles.

  "We are the ones who will hear," said Phouchg, "the answer to the great question of Life . . . !"

  "The Universe . . . !" said Loonquawl.

  "And Everything . . . !"

  "Shhh," said Loonquawl with a slight gesture, "I think Deep Thought is preparing to speak!"

  There was a moment's expectant pause whilst panels slowly came to life on the front of the console. Lights flashed on and off experimentally and settled down into a businesslike pattern. A soft low hum came from the communication channel.

  "Good morning," said Deep Thought at last.

  "Er . . . Good morning, O Deep Thought," said Loonquawl nervously, "do you have . . . er, that is . . ."

  "An answer for you?" interrupted Deep Thought majestically. "Yes. I have."

  The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.

  "There really is one?" breathed Phouchg.

  "There really is one," confirmed Deep Thought.

  "To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything?"

  "Yes."

  Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.

  "And you're ready to give it to us?" urged Loonquawl.

  "I am."

  "Now?"

  "Now," said Deep Thought.

  They both licked their dry lips.

  "Though I don't think," added Deep Thought, "that you're going to like it."

  "Doesn't matter!" said Phouchg. "We must know it! Now!"

  "Now?" inquired Deep Thought.

  "Yes! Now . . ."

  "Alright," said the computer and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.

  "You're really not going to like it," observed Deep Thought.

  "Tell us!"

  "Alright," said Deep Thought. "The Answer to the Great Question . . ."

  "Yes . . . !"

  "Of Life, the Universe and Everything . . ." said Deep Thought.

  "Yes . . . !"

  "Is . . ." said Deep Thought, and paused.

  "Yes . . . !"

  "Is . . ."

  "Yes . . . !!! . . . ?"

  "Forty-two," said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

  Chapter 28

  It was a long time before anyone spoke.

  Out of the corner of his eye Phouchg could see the sea of tense expectant faces down in the square outside.

  "We're going to get lynched, aren't we?" he whispered.

  "It was a tough assignment," said Deep Thought mildly.

  "Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"

  "I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

  "But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything!" howled Loonquawl.

  "Yes," said Deep Thought with the air of one who suffers fools gladly, "but what actually is it?"

  A slow stupefied silence crept over the men as they stared at the computer and then at each other.

  "Well, you know, it's just Everything . . . Everything . . ." offered Phouchg weakly.

  "Exactly!" said Deep Thought. "So once you do know what the question actually is, you'll know what the answer means."

  "Oh terrific," muttered Phouchg flinging aside his notebook and wiping away a tiny tear.

  "Look, alright, alright," said Loonquawl, "can you just please tell us the Question?"

  "The Ultimate Question?"

  "Yes!"

  "Of Life, the Universe, and Everything?"

  "Yes!"

  Deep Thought pondered this for a moment.

  "Tricky," he said.

  "But can you do it?" cried Loonquawl.

  Deep Thought pondered this for another long moment.

  Finally: "No," he said firmly.

  Both men collapsed on to their chairs in despair.

  "But I'll tell you who can," said Deep Thought.

  They both looked up sharply.

  "Who?" "Tell us!"

  Suddenly Arthur began to feel his apparently non-existent scalp begin to crawl as he found himself moving slowly but inexorably forward towards the console, but it was only a dramatic zoom on the part of whoever had made the recording he assumed.

  "I speak of none other than the computer that is to come after me," intoned Deep Thought, his voice regaining its accustomed declamatory tones. "A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate--and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the Question to the Ultimate Answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself shall form part of its operational matrix. And you yourselves shal