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Chapter Twenty-two

He was standing with his back to Arthur watching the very last glimmers of light sink into blackness behind the horizon. He was tallish, elderly and dressed in a single long grey robe. When he turned his face was thin and distinguished, careworn but not unkind, the sort of face you would happily bank with. But he didn't turn yet, not even to react to Arthur's yelp of surprise.

Eventually the last rays of the sun had vanished completely, and he turned. His face was still illuminated from somewhere, and when Arthur looked for the source of the light he saw that a few yards away stood a small craft of some kind --- a small hovercraft, Arthur guessed. It shed a dim pool of light around it.

The man looked at Arthur, sadly it seemed.

``You choose a cold night to visit our dead planet,'' he said.

``Who ... who are you?'' stammered Arthur.

The man looked away. Again a kind of sadness seemed to cross his face.

``My name is not important,'' he said.

He seemed to have something on his mind. Conversation was clearly something he felt he didn't have to rush at. Arthur felt awkward.

``I ... er ... you startled me ...'' he said, lamely.

The man looked round to him again and slightly raised his eyebrows.

``Hmmmm?'' he said.

``I said you startled me.''

``Do not be alarmed, I will not harm you.''

Arthur frowned at him. ``But you shot at us! There were missiles ...'' he said.

The man chuckled slightly.

``An automatic system,'' he said and gave a small sigh. ``Ancient computers ranged in the bowels of the planet tick away the dark millennia, and the ages hang heavy on their dusty data banks. I think they take the occasional pot shot to relieve the monotony.''

He looked gravely at Arthur and said, ``I'm a great fan of science you know.''

``Oh ... er, really?'' said Arthur, who was beginning to find the man's curious, kindly manner disconcerting.

``Oh, yes,'' said the old man, and simply stopped talking again.

``Ah,'' said Arthur, ``er ...'' He had an odd felling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman's husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.

``You seem ill at ease,'' said the old man with polite concern.

``Er, no ... well, yes. Actually you see, we weren't really expecting to find anybody about in fact. I sort of gathered that you were all dead or something ...''

``Dead?'' said the old man. ``Good gracious no, we have but slept.''

``Slept?'' said Arthur incredulously.

``Yes, through the economic recession you see,'' said the old man, apparently unconcerned about whether Arthur understood a word he was talking about or not.

``Er, economic recession?''

``Well you see, five million years ago the Galactic economy collapsed, and seeing that custom-made planets are something of a luxury commodity you see ...''

He paused and looked at Arthur.

``You know we built planets do you?'' he asked solemnly.

``Well yes,'' said Arthur, ``I'd sort of gathered ...''

``Fascinating trade,'' said the old man, and a wistful look came into his eyes, ``doing the coastlines was always my favourite. Used to have endless fun doing the little bits in fjords ... so anyway,'' he said trying to find his thread again, ``the recession came and we decided it would save us a lot of bother if we just slept through it. So we programmed the computers to revive us when it was all over.''

The man stifled a very slight yawn and continued.

``The computers were index linked to the Galactic stock market prices you see, so that we'd all be revived when everybody else had rebuilt the economy enough to afford our rather expensive services.''

Arthur, a regular Guardian reader, was deeply shocked at this.

``That's a pretty unpleasant way to behave isn't it?''

``Is it?'' asked the old man mildly. ``I'm sorry, I'm a bit out of touch.''

He pointed down into the crater.

``Is that robot yours?'' he said.

``No,'' came a thin metallic voice from the crater, ``I'm mine.''

``If you'd call it a robot,'' muttered Arthur. ``It's more a sort of electronic sulking machine.''

``Bring it,'' said the old man. Arthur was quite surprised to hear a note of decision suddenly present in the old man's voice. He called to Marvin who crawled up the slope making a big show of being lame, which he wasn't.

``On second thoughts,'' said the old man, ``leave it here. You must come with me. Great things are afoot.'' He turned towards his craft which, though no apparent signal had been given, now drifted quietly towards them through the dark.

Arthur looked down at Marvin, who now made an equally big show of turning round laboriously and trudging off down into the crater again muttering sour nothings to himself.

``Come,'' called the old man, ``come now or you will be late.''

``Late?'' said Arthur. ``What for?''

``What is your name, human?''

``Dent. Arthur Dent,'' said Arthur.

``Late, as in the late Dentarthurdent,'' said the old man, sternly. ``It's a sort of threat you see.'' Another wistful look came into his tired old eyes. ``I've never been very good at them myself, but I'm told they can be very effective.''

Arthur blinked at him.

``What an extraordinary person,'' he muttered to himself.

``I beg your pardon?'' said the old man.

``Oh nothing, I'm sorry,'' said Arthur in embarrassment. ``Alright, where do we go?''

``In my aircar,'' said the old man motioning Arthur to get into the craft which had settled silently next to them. ``We are going deep into the bowels of the planet where even now our race is being revived from its five-million-year slumber. Magrathea awakes.''

Arthur shivered involuntarily as he seated himself next to the old man. The strangeness of it, the silent bobbing movement of the craft as it soared into the night sky quite unsettled him.

He looked at the old man, his face illuminated by the dull glow of tiny lights on the instrument panel.

``Excuse me,'' he said to him, ``what is your name by the way?''

``My name?'' said the old man, and the same distant sadness came into his face again. He paused. ``My name,'' he said, ``... is Slartibartfast.''

Arthur practically choked.

``I beg your pardon?'' he spluttered.

``Slartibartfast,'' repeated the old man quietly.

``Slartibartfast?''

The old man looked at him gravely.

``I said it wasn't important,'' he said.

The aircar sailed through the night.


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