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Chapter Twenty-four

Silently the aircar coasted through the cold darkness, a single soft glow of light that was utterly alone in the deep Magrathean night. It sped swiftly. Arthur's companion seemed sunk in his own thoughts, and when Arthur tried on a couple of occasions to engage him in conversation again he would simply reply by asking if he was comfortable enough, and then left it at that.

Arthur tried to gauge the speed at which they were travelling, but the blackness outside was absolute and he was denied any reference points. The sense of motion was so soft and slight he could almost believe they were hardly moving at all.

Then a tiny glow of light appeared in the far distance and within seconds had grown so much in size that Arthur realized it was travelling towards them at a colossal speed, and he tried to make out what sort of craft it might be. He peered at it, but was unable to discern any clear shape, and suddenly gasped in alarm as the aircraft dipped sharply and headed downwards in what seemed certain to be a collision course. Their relative velocity seemed unbelievable, and Arthur had hardly time to draw breath before it was all over. The next thing he was aware of was an insane silver blur that seemed to surround him. He twisted his head sharply round and saw a small black point dwindling rapidly in the distance behind them, and it took him several seconds to realize what had happened.

They had plunged into a tunnel in the ground. The colossal speed had been their own relative to the glow of light which was a stationary hole in the ground, the mouth of the tunnel. The insane blur of silver was the circular wall of the tunnel down which they were shooting, apparently at several hundred miles an hour.

He closed his eyes in terror.

After a length of time which he made no attempt to judge, he sensed a slight subsidence in their speed and some while later became aware that they were gradually gliding to a gentle halt.

He opened his eyes again. They were still in the silver tunnel, threading and weaving their way through what appeared to be a crisscross warren of converging tunnels. When they finally stopped it was in a small chamber of curved steel. Several tunnels also had their terminus here, and at the farther end of the chamber Arthur could see a large circle of dim irritating light. It was irritating because it played tricks with the eyes, it was impossible to focus on it properly or tell how near or far it was. Arthur guessed (quite wrongly) that it might be ultra violet.

Slartibartfast turned and regarded Arthur with his solemn old eyes.

``Earthman,'' he said, ``we are now deep in the heart of Magrathea.''

``How did you know I was an Earthman?'' demanded Arthur.

``These things will become clear to you,'' said the old man gently, ``at least,'' he added with slight doubt in his voice, ``clearer than they are at the moment.''

He continued: ``I should warn you that the chamber we are about to pass into does not literally exist within our planet. It is a little too ... large. We are about to pass through a gateway into a vast tract of hyperspace. It may disturb you.''

Arthur made nervous noises.

Slartibartfast touched a button and added, not entirely reassuringly. ``It scares the willies out of me. Hold tight.''

The car shot forward straight into the circle of light, and suddenly Arthur had a fairly clear idea of what infinity looked like.

It wasn't infinity in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity --- distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very big, so that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.

Arthur's senses bobbed and span, as, travelling at the immense speed he knew the aircar attained, they climbed slowly through the open air leaving the gateway through which they had passed an invisible pinprick in the shimmering wall behind them.

The wall.

The wall defied the imagination --- seduced it and defeated it. The wall was so paralysingly vast and sheer that its top, bottom and sides passed away beyond the reach of sight. The mere shock of vertigo could kill a man.

The wall appeared perfectly flat. It would take the finest laser measuring equipment to detect that as it climbed, apparently to infinity, as it dropped dizzily away, as it planed out to either side, it also curved. It met itself again thirteen light seconds away. In other words the wall formed the inside of a hollow sphere, a sphere over three million miles across and flooded with unimaginable light.

``Welcome,'' said Slartibartfast as the tiny speck that was the aircar, travelling now at three times the speed of sound, crept imperceptibly forward into the mindboggling space, ``welcome,'' he said, ``to our factory floor.''

Arthur stared about him in a kind of wonderful horror. Ranged away before them, at distances he could neither judge nor even guess at, were a series of curious suspensions, delicate traceries of metal and light hung about shadowy spherical shapes that hung in the space.

``This,'' said Slartibartfast, ``is where we make most of our planets you see.''

``You mean,'' said Arthur, trying to form the words, ``you mean you're starting it all up again now?''

``No no, good heavens no,'' exclaimed the old man, ``no, the Galaxy isn't nearly rich enough to support us yet. No, we've been awakened to perform just one extraordinary commission for very ... special clients from another dimension. It may interest you ... there in the distance in front of us.''

Arthur followed the old man's finger, till he was able to pick out the floating structure he was pointing out. It was indeed the only one of the many structures that betrayed any sign of activity about it, though this was more a sublimal impression than anything one could put one's finger on.

At the moment however a flash of light arced through the structure and revealed in stark relief the patterns that were formed on the dark sphere within. Patterns that Arthur knew, rough blobby shapes that were as familiar to him as the shapes of words, part of the furniture of his mind. For a few seconds he sat in stunned silence as the images rushed around his mind and tried to find somewhere to settle down and make sense.

Part of his brain told him that he knew perfectly well what he was looking at and what the shapes represented whilst another quite sensibly refused to countenance the idea and abdicated responsibility for any further thinking in that direction.

The flash came again, and this time there could be no doubt.

``The Earth ...'' whispered Arthur.

``Well, the Earth Mark Two in fact,'' said Slartibartfast cheerfully. ``We're making a copy from our original blueprints.''

There was a pause.

``Are you trying to tell me,'' said Arthur, slowly and with control, ``that you originally ... made the Earth?''

``Oh yes,'' said Slartibartfast. ``Did you ever go to a place ... I think it was called Norway?''

``No,'' said Arthur, ``no, I didn't.''

``Pity,'' said Slartibartfast, ``that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges. I was most upset to hear about its destruction.''

``You were upset!''

``Yes. Five minutes later and it wouldn't have mattered so much. It was a quite shocking cock-up.''

``Huh?'' said Arthur.

``The mice were furious.''

``The mice were furious?''

``Oh yes,'' said the old man mildly.

``Yes well so I expect were the dogs and cats and duckbilled platypuses, but ...''

``Ah, but they hadn't paid for it you see, had they?''

``Look,'' said Arthur, ``would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?''

For a while the aircar flew on in awkward silence. Then the old man tried patiently to explain.

``Earthman, the planet you lived on was commissioned, paid for, and run by mice. It was destroyed five minutes before the completion of the purpose for which it was built, and we've got to build another one.''

Only one word registered with Arthur.

``Mice?'' he said.

``Indeed Earthman.''

``Look, sorry --- are we talking about the little white furry things with the cheese fixation and women standing on tables screaming in early sixties sit coms?''

Slartibartfast coughed politely.

``Earthman,'' he said, ``it is sometimes hard to follow your mode of speech. Remember I have been asleep inside this planet of Magrathea for five million years and know little of these early sixties sit coms of which you speak. These creatures you call mice, you see, they are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusion into our dimension of vast hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings. The whole business with the cheese and the squeaking is just a front.''

The old man paused, and with a sympathetic frown continued.

``They've been experimenting on you I'm afraid.''

Arthur thought about this for a second, and then his face cleared.

``Ah no,'' he said, ``I see the source of the misunderstanding now. No, look you see, what happened was that we used to do experiments on them. They were often used in behavioural research, Pavlov and all that sort of stuff. So what happened was hat the mice would be set all sorts of tests, learning to ring bells, run around mazes and things so that the whole nature of the learning process could be examined. From our observations of their behaviour we were able to learn all sorts of things about our own ...''

Arthur's voice tailed off.

``Such subtlety ...'' said Slartibartfast, ``one has to admire it.''

``What?'' said Arthur.

``How better to disguise their real natures, and how better to guide your thinking. Suddenly running down a maze the wrong way, eating the wrong bit of cheese, unexpectedly dropping dead of myxomatosis, --- if it's finely calculated the cumulative effect is enormous.''

He paused for effect.

``You see, Earthman, they really are particularly clever hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings. Your planet and people have formed the matrix of an organic computer running a ten-million-year research programme ...

``Let me tell you the whole story. It'll take a little time.''

``Time,'' said Arthur weakly, ``is not currently one of my problems.''


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