The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Read online

Page 6



  The room folded flat about him, spun around, shifted out of existence and left him sliding into his own navel.

  They were passing through hyperspace.

  "The Babel fish," said The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy not from its carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

  "Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

  "The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'

  " 'But,' says Man, 'The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'

  " 'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

  " 'Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

  "Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God.

  "Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bluddier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

  Arthur let out a low groan. He was horrified to discover that the kick through hyperspace hadn't killed him. He was now six light years from the place that the Earth would have been if it still existed.

  The Earth.

  Visions of it swam sickeningly through his nauseated mind. There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket before and felt a sudden stab--the supermarket was gone, everything in it was gone. Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson's Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind--his mind, stuck here in this dank smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.

  England no longer existed. He'd got that--somehow he'd got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger.

  He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother.

  He jerked himself violently to his feet.

  "Ford!"

  Ford looked up from where he was sitting in a corner humming to himself. He always found the actual travelling-through-space part of space travel rather trying.

  "Yeah?" he said.

  "If you're a researcher on this book thing and you were on Earth, you must have been gathering material on it."

  "Well, I was able to extend the original entry a bit, yes."

  "Let me see what it says in this edition then, I've got to see it."

  "Yeah, OK." He passed it over again.

  Arthur grabbed hold of it and tried to stop his hands shaking. He pressed the entry for the relevant page. The screen flashed and swirled and resolved into a page of print. Arthur stared at it.

  "It doesn't have an entry!" he burst out.

  Ford looked over his shoulder.

  "Yes, it does," he said, "down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just under Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6."

  Arthur followed Ford's finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it still didn't register, then his mind nearly blew up.

  "What? Harmless? Is that all it's got to say? Harmless! One word!"

  Ford shrugged.

  "Well, there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy, and only a limited amount of space in the book's microprocessors," he said, "and no one knew much about the Earth of course."

  "Well, for God's sake, I hope you managed to rectify that a bit."

  "Oh yes, well I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but it's still an improvement."

  "And what does it say now?" asked Arthur.

  "Mostly harmless," admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.

  "Mostly harmless!" shouted Arthur.

  "What was that noise?" hissed Ford.

  "It was me shouting," shouted Arthur.

  "No! Shut up!" said Ford. "I think we're in trouble."

  "You think we're in trouble!"

  Outside the door were the sounds of marching feet.

  "The Dentrassi?" whispered Arthur.

  "No, those are steel tipped boots," said Ford.

  There was a sharp ringing rap on the door.

  "Then who is it?" said Arthur.

  "Well," said Ford, "if we're lucky it's just the Vogons come to throw us into space."

  "And if we're unlucky?"

  "If we're unlucky," said Ford grimly, "the captain might be serious in his threat that he's going to read us some of his poetry first . . ."

  Chapter 7

  Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe.

  The second worst is that of the Azagoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode To A Small Lump of Green Putty I Found In My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience died of internal haemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favourite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

  The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England in the destruction of the planet Earth.

  Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz smiled very slowly. This was done not so much for effect as because he was trying to remember the sequence of muscle movements. He had had a terribly therapeutic yell at his prisoners and was now feeling quite relaxed and ready for a little callousness.

  The prisoners sat in Poetry Appreciation Chairs--strapped in. Vogons suffered no illusions as to the regard their works were generally held in. Their early attempts at composition had been part of bludgeoning insistence that they be accepted as a properly evolved and cultured race, but now the only thing that kept them going was sheer bloodymindedness.

  The sweat stood out cold on Ford Prefect's brow, and slid round the electrodes strapped to his temples. These were attached to a battery of electronic equipment--imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers--all designed to heighten the experience of the poem and make sure that not a single nuance of