The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Read online

Page 7

  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