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Chapter Seventeen

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.

``Hi there!''

``What the photon is it?''

``Oh, just some five-million-year-old tape that's being broadcast at us.''

``A what? A recording?''

``Shush!'' said Ford. ``It's carrying on.''

The voice was old, courteous, almost charming, but was underscored with quite unmistakable menace.

``This is a recorded announcement,'' it said, ``as I'm afraid we're all out at the moment. The commercial council of Magrathea thanks you for your esteemed visit ...''

(``A voice from ancient Magrathea!'' shouted Zaphod. ``OK, OK,'' said Ford.)

``... but regrets,'' continued the voice, ``that the entire planet is temporarily closed for business. Thank you. If you would care to leave your name and the address of a planet where you can be contacted, kindly speak when you hear the tone.''

A short buzz followed, then silence.

``They want to get rid of us,'' said Trillian nervously. ``What do we do?''

``It's just a recording,'' said Zaphod. ``We keep going. Got that, computer?''

``I got it,'' said the computer and gave the ship an extra kick of speed.

They waited.

After a second or so came the fanfare once again, and then the voice.

``We would like to assure you that as soon as our business is resumed announcements will be made in all fashionable magazines and colour supplements, when our clients will once again be able to select from all that's best in contemporary geography.'' The menace in the voice took on a sharper edge. ``Meanwhile we thank our clients for their kind interest and would ask them to leave. Now.''

Arthur looked round the nervous faces of his companions.

``Well, I suppose we'd better be going then, hadn't we?'' he suggested.

``Shhh!'' said Zaphod. ``There's absolutely nothing to be worried about.''

``Then why's everyone so tense?''

``They're just interested!'' shouted Zaphod. ``Computer, start a descent into the atmosphere and prepare for landing.''

This time the fanfare was quite perfunctory, the voice distinctly cold.

``It is most gratifying,'' it said, ``that your enthusiasm for our planet continues unabated, and so we would like to assure you that the guided missiles currently converging with your ship are part of a special service we extend to all of our most enthusiastic clients, and the fully armed nuclear warheads are of course merely a courtesy detail. We look forward to your custom in future lives ... thank you.''

The voice snapped off.

``Oh,'' said Trillian.

``Er ...'' said Arthur.

``Well?'' said Ford.

``Look,'' said Zaphod, ``will you get it into your heads? That's just a recorded message. It's millions of years old. It doesn't apply to us, get it?''

``What,'' said Trillian quietly, ``about the missiles?''

``Missiles? Don't make me laugh.''

Ford tapped Zaphod on the shoulder and pointed at the rear screen. Clear in the distance behind them two silver darts were climbing through the atmosphere towards the ship. A quick change of magnification brought them into close focus --- two massively real rockets thundering through the sky. The suddenness of it was shocking.

``I think they're going to have a very good try at applying to us,'' said Ford.

Zaphod stared at them in astonishment.

``Hey this is terrific!'' he said. ``Someone down there is trying to kill us!''

``Terrific,'' said Arthur.

``But don't you see what this means?''

``Yes. We're going to die.''

``Yes, but apart from that.''

``Apart from that?''

``It means we must be on to something!''

``How soon can we get off it?''

Second by second the image of the missiles on the screen became larger. They had swung round now on to a direct homing course so that all that could be seen of them now was the warheads, head on.

``As a matter of interest,'' said Trillian, ``what are we going to do?''

``Just keep cool,'' said Zaphod.

``Is that all?'' shouted Arthur.

``No, we're also going to ... er ... take evasive action!'' said Zaphod with a sudden access of panic. ``Computer, what evasive action can we take?''

``Er, none I'm afraid, guys,'' said the computer.

``... or something,'' said Zaphod, ``... er ...'' he said.

``There seems to be something jamming my guidance system,'' explained the computer brightly, ``impact minus forty-five seconds. Please call me Eddie if it will help you to relax.''

Zaphod tried to run in several equally decisive directions simultaneously. ``Right!'' he said. ``Er ... we've got to get manual control of this ship.''

``Can you fly her?'' asked Ford pleasantly.

``No, can you?''

``No.''

``Trillian, can you?''

``No.''

``Fine,'' said Zaphod, relaxing. ``We'll do it together.''

``I can't either,'' said Arthur, who felt it was time he began to assert himself.

``I'd guessed that,'' said Zaphod. ``OK computer, I want full manual control now.''

``You got it,'' said the computer.

Several large desk panels slid open and banks of control consoles sprang up out of them, showering the crew with bits of expanded polystyrene packaging and balls of rolled-up cellophane: these controls had never been used before.

Zaphod stared at them wildly.

``OK, Ford,'' he said, ``full retro thrust and ten degrees starboard. Or something ...''

``Good luck guys,'' chirped the computer, ``impact minus thirty seconds ...''

Ford leapt to the controls --- only a few of them made any immediate sense to him so he pulled those. The ship shook and screamed as its guidance rocked jets tried to push it every which way simultaneously. He released half of them and the ship span round in a tight arc and headed back the way it had come, straight towards the oncoming missiles.

Air cushions ballooned out of the walls in an instant as everyone was thrown against them. For a few seconds the inertial forces held them flattened and squirming for breath, unable to move. Zaphod struggled and pushed in manic desperation and finally managed a savage kick at a small lever that formed part of the guidance system.

The lever snapped off. The ship twisted sharply and rocketed upwards. The crew were hurled violently back across the cabin. Ford's copy of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy smashed into another section of the control console with the combined result that the guide started to explain to anyone who cared to listen about the best ways of smuggling Antarean parakeet glands out of Antares (an Antarean parakeet gland stuck on a small stick is a revolting but much sought after cocktail delicacy and very large sums of money are often paid for them by very rich idiots who want to impress other very rich idiots), and the ship suddenly dropped out of the sky like a stone.

It was of course more or less at this moment that one of the crew sustained a nasty bruise to the upper arm. This should be emphasized because, as had already been revealed, they escape otherwise completely unharmed and the deadly nuclear missiles do not eventually hit the ship. The safety of the crew is absolutely assured.

``Impact minus twenty seconds, guys ...'' said the computer.

``Then turn the bloody engines back on!'' bawled Zaphod.

``OK, sure thing, guys,'' said the computer. With a subtle roar the engines cut back in, the ship smoothly flattened out of its dive and headed back towards the missiles again.

The computer started to sing.

``When you walk through the storm ...'' it whined nasally, ``hold your head up high ...''

Zaphod screamed at it to shut up, but his voice was lost in the din of what they quite naturally assumed was approaching destruction.

``And don't ... be afraid ... of the dark!'' Eddie wailed.

The ship, in flattening out had in fact flattened out upside down and lying on the ceiling as they were it was now totally impossible for any of the crew to reach the guidance systems.

``At the end of the storm ...'' crooned Eddie.

The two missiles loomed massively on the screens as they thundered towards the ship.

``... is a golden sky ...''

But by an extraordinarily lucky chance they had not yet fully corrected their flight paths to that of the erratically weaving ship, and they passed right under it.

``And the sweet silver songs of the lark ... Revised impact time fifteen seconds fellas ... Walk on through the wind ...''

The missiles banked round in a screeching arc and plunged back into pursuit.

``This is it,'' said Arthur watching them. ``We are now quite definitely going to die aren't we?''

``I wish you'd stop saying that,'' shouted Ford.

``Well we are aren't we?''

``Yes.''

``Walk on through the rain ...'' sang Eddie.

A thought struck Arthur. He struggled to his feet.

``Why doesn't anyone turn on this Improbability Drive thing?'' he said. ``We could probably reach that.''

``What are you crazy?'' said Zaphod. ``Without proper programming anything could happen.''

``Does that matter at this stage?'' shouted Arthur.

``Though your dreams be tossed and blown ...'' sand Eddie.

Arthur scrambled up on to one end of the excitingly chunky pieces of moulded contouring where the curve of the wall met the ceiling.

``Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart ...''

``Does anyone know why Arthur can't turn on the Improbability Drive?'' shouted Trillian.

``And you'll never walk alone ... Impact minus five seconds, it's been great knowing you guys, God bless ... You'll ne ... ver ... walk ... alone!''

``I said,'' yelled Trillian, ``does anyone know ...''

The next thing that happened was a mid-mangling explosion of noise and light.


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