Read The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Online

Authors: Douglas Adams

Tags: #Retail, #Personal, #004 Top 100 Sci-Fi

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (6 page)

BOOK: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
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The man sitting next to Ford was a bit sozzled by now. His eyes weaved their way up to Ford.

“I thought,” he said, “that if the world was going to end we were meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something.”

“If you like, yes,” said Ford.

“That’s what they told us in the army,” said the man, and his eyes began the long trek back toward his whisky.

“Will that help?” asked the barman.

“No,” said Ford, and gave him a friendly smile. “Excuse me,” he said, “I’ve got to go.” With a wave, he left.

The pub was silent for a moment longer and then, embarrassingly enough, the man with the raucous laugh did it again. The girl he had dragged along to the pub with him had grown to loathe him dearly over the last hour, and it would probably have been a great satisfaction to her to know that in a minute and a half or so he would suddenly evaporate into a whiff of hydrogen, ozone and carbon monoxide. However, when the moment came she would be too busy evaporating herself to notice it.

The barman cleared his throat. He heard himself say, “Last orders, please.”

The huge yellow machines began to sink downward and to move faster.

Ford knew they were there. This wasn’t the way he had wanted it.

Running up the lane, Arthur had nearly reached his house. He didn’t notice how cold it had suddenly become, he didn’t notice the wind, he didn’t notice the sudden irrational squall of rain. He didn’t notice anything but the caterpillar bulldozers crawling over the rubble that had been his home.

“You barbarians!” he yelled. “I’ll sue the council for every penny it’s got! I’ll have you hung, drawn and quartered! And whipped! And boiled … until … until … until you’ve had enough.”

Ford was running after him very fast. Very very fast.

“And then I will do it again!” yelled Arthur. “And when I’ve finished I will take all the little bits, and I
will jump
on them!”

Arthur didn’t notice that the men were running from the bulldozers; he didn’t notice that Mr. Prosser was staring hectically into the sky. What Mr. Prosser had noticed was that huge yellow somethings were screaming through the clouds. Impossibly huge yellow somethings.

“And I will carry on jumping on them,” yelled Arthur, still running, “until I get blisters, or I can think of anything even more unpleasant to do, and then …”

Arthur tripped, and fell headlong, rolled and landed flat on his back. At last he noticed that something was going on. His finger shot upward.

“What the hell’s that?” he shrieked.

Whatever it was raced across the sky in its monstrous yellowness, tore the sky apart with mind-boggling noise and leaped off into the distance leaving the gaping air to shut behind it with a
bang
that drove your ears six feet into your skull;

Another one followed and did exactly the same thing only louder.

It’s difficult to say exactly what the people on the surface of the planet were doing now, because they didn’t really know what they were doing themselves. None of it made a lot of sense—running into houses, running out of houses, howling noiselessly at the noise. All around the world city streets exploded with people, cars skidded into each other as the noise fell on them and then rolled off like a tidal wave over hills and valleys, deserts and oceans, seeming to flatten everything it hit.

Only one man stood and watched the sky, stood with terrible sadness in his eyes and rubber bungs in his ears. He knew exactly what was happening and had known ever since his Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic had
started winking in the dead of night beside his pillow and wakened him with a start. It was what he had waited for all these years, but when he had deciphered the signal pattern sitting alone in his small dark room, a coldness had gripped him and squeezed his heart. Of all the races in all of the Galaxy who could have come and said a big hello to planet Earth, he thought, didn’t it just have to be the Vogons.

Still, he knew what he had to do. As the Vogon craft screamed through the air high above him he opened his satchel. He threw away a copy of
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
, he threw away a copy of
Godspell:
he wouldn’t need them where he was going. Everything was ready, everything was prepared.

He knew where his towel was.

A sudden silence hit the Earth. If anything it was worse than the noise. For a while nothing happened.

The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

And still nothing happened.

Then there was a slight whisper, a sudden spacious whisper of open ambient sound. Every hi-fi set in the world, every radio, every television, every cassette recorder, every woofer, every tweeter, every mid-range driver in the world quietly turned itself on.

Every tin can, every dustbin, every window, every car, every wineglass, every sheet of rusty metal became activated as an acoustically perfect sounding board.

Before the Earth passed away it was going to be treated to the very ultimate in sound reproduction, the greatest public address system ever built. But there was no concert, no music, no fanfare, just a simple message.

“People of Earth, your attention, please
,” a voice said, and it was wonderful. Wonderful perfect quadrophonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.

“This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council, “
the voice continued.
“As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express
route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.”

The PA died away.

Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. The terror moved slowly through the gathered crowds as if they were iron filings on a sheet of board and a magnet was moving beneath them. Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to.

Observing this, the Vogons turned on their PA again. It said:

“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”

The PA fell silent again and its echo drifted across the land. The huge ships turned slowly in the sky with easy power. On the underside of each a hatchway opened, an empty black square.

By this time somebody somewhere must have manned a radio transmitter, located a wavelength and broadcast a message back to the Vogon ships, to plead on behalf of the planet. Nobody ever heard what they said, they only heard the reply. The PA slammed back into life again. The voice was annoyed. It said:

“What do you mean, you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light-years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout
.

“Energize the demolition beams.”

Light poured out of the hatchways.

“I don’t know,”
said the voice on the PA,
“apathetic bloody planet, I’ve no sympathy at all
.” It cut off.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

There was a terrible ghastly noise.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

The Vogon Constructor Fleet coasted away into the inky starry void.

Chapter 4

F
ar away on the opposite spiral arm of the Galaxy, five hundred thousand light-years from the star Sol, Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Imperial Galactic Government, sped across the seas of Damogran, his ion drive delta boat winking and flashing in the Damogran sun.

Damogran the hot; Damogran the remote; Damogran the almost totally unheard of.

Damogran, secret home of the Heart of Gold.

The boat sped on across the water. It would be some time before it reached its destination because Damogran is such an inconveniently arranged planet. It consists of nothing but middling to large desert islands separated by very pretty but annoyingly wide stretches of ocean.

The boat sped on.

Because of this topographical awkwardness Damogran has always remained a deserted planet. This is why the Imperial Galactic Government chose Damogran for the Heart of Gold project, because it was so deserted and the Heart of Gold project was so secret.

The boat zipped and skipped across the sea, the sea that lay between the main islands of the only archipelago of any useful size on the whole planet. Zaphod Beeblebrox was on his way from the tiny spaceport on Easter Island (the name was an entirely meaningless coincidence—in Galacticspeke,
easter
means small, flat and light-brown) to the Heart of Gold Island, which by another meaningless coincidence was called France.

One of the side effects of work on the Heart of Gold was a whole string of pretty meaningless coincidences.

But it was not in any way a coincidence that today, the day of culmination of the project, the great day of unveiling, the day that the Heart of Gold was finally to be introduced to a marveling Galaxy, was also a great day of culmination for Zaphod Beeblebrox. It was for the sake of this day that he had first decided to run for the presidency, a decision that had sent shock waves of astonishment throughout the Imperial Galaxy. Zaphod Beeblebrox?
President?
Not
the
Zaphod Beeblebrox? Not
the
President? Many had seen it as clinching proof that the whole of known creation had finally gone bananas.

Zaphod grinned and gave the boat an extra kick of speed.

Zaphod Beeblebrox, adventurer, ex-hippie, good-timer (crook? quite possibly), manic self-publicist, terrible bad at personal relationships, often thought to be completely out to lunch.

President?

No one had gone bananas, not in that way at least.

Only six people in the entire Galaxy understood the principle on which the Galaxy was governed, and they knew that once Zaphod Beeblebrox had announced his intention to run as President it was more or less a fait accompli: he was ideal presidency fodder.
*

What they completely failed to understand was why Zaphod was doing it.

He banked sharply, shooting a wild wall of water at the sun.

Today was the day; today was the day when they would realize what Zaphod had been up to. Today was what Zaphod Beeblebrox’s presidency was all about. Today was also his two-hundredth birthday, but that was just another meaningless coincidence.

As he skipped his boat across the seas of Damogran he smiled quietly to himself about what a wonderful, exciting day it was going to be. He relaxed and spread his two arms lazily along the seat back. He steered with an extra arm he’d recently had fitted just beneath his right one to help improve his ski-boxing.

“Hey,” he cooed to himself, “you’re a real cool boy, you.” But his nerves sang a song shriller than a dog whistle.

The island of France was about twenty miles long, five miles across the middle, sandy and crescent-shaped. In fact, it seemed to exist not so much as an island in its own right as simply a means of defining the sweep and curve of a huge bay. This impression was heightened by the fact that the inner coastline of the crescent consisted almost entirely of steep cliffs. From the top of the cliff the land sloped slowly down five miles to the opposite shore.

On top of the cliffs stood a reception committee.

It consisted in large part of the engineers and researchers who had built the Heart of Gold—mostly humanoid, but here and there were a few reptiloid atomineers, two or three green sylphlike maximegalaticians, an octopodic physucturalist or two and a Hooloovoo (a Hooloovoo is a superintelligent shade of the color blue). All except the Hooloovoo were resplendent in their multicolored ceremonial lab coats; the Hooloovoo had been temporarily refracted into a free-standing prism for the occasion.

There was a mood of immense excitement thrilling through all of them. Together and between them they had gone to and beyond the furthest limits of physical laws, restructured the fundamental fabric of matter, strained, twisted and broken the laws of possibility and impossibility, but still the greatest excitement of all seemed to be to meet a man with an orange sash round his neck. (An orange sash was what the President of the Galaxy traditionally wore.) It might not even have made much difference to them if they’d known exactly how much power the President of the Galaxy actually wielded: none at all. Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of the Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it.

Zaphod Beeblebrox was amazingly good at his job.

The crowd gasped, dazzled by sun and seamanship, as the presidential speedboat zipped round the headland into the bay. It flashed and shone as it came skating over the sea in wide skidding turns.

In fact, it didn’t need to touch the water at all, because it was supported on a hazy cushion of ionized atoms, but just for effect it was fitted with thin finblades which could be lowered into the water. They slashed sheets of water hissing into the air, carved deep gashes in the sea which swayed crazily and sank back foaming in the boat’s wake as it careered across the bay.

Zaphod loved effect: it was what he was best at.

He twisted the wheel sharply, the boat skidded round in a wild scything skid beneath the cliff face and dropped to rest lightly on the rocking waves.

Within seconds he ran out onto the deck and waved and grinned at over three billion people. The three billion people weren’t actually there, but they watched his every gesture through the eyes of a small robot tri-D camera which hovered obsequiously in the air nearby. The antics of the President always made amazingly popular tri-D: that’s what they were for.

BOOK: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
11.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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