``Terribly unfortunate,'' he said, ``a diode blew in one of the life-support computers. When we tried to revive our cleaning staff we discovered they'd been dead for nearly thirty thousand years. Who's going to clear away the bodies, that's what I want to know. Look why don't you sit yourself down over there and let me plug you in?''
He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the rib cage of a stegosaurus.
``It was made out of the rib cage of a stegosaurus,'' explained the old man as he pottered about fishing bits of wire out from under tottering piles of paper and drawing instruments. ``Here,'' he said, ``hold these,'' and passed a couple of stripped wire end to Arthur.
The instant he took hold of them a bird flew straight through him.
He was suspended in mid-air and totally invisible to himself. Beneath him was a pretty treelined city square, and all around it as far as the eye could see were white concrete buildings of airy spacious design but somewhat the worse for wear --- many were cracked and stained with rain. Today however the sun was shining, a fresh breeze danced lightly through the trees, and the odd sensation that all the buildings were quietly humming was probably caused by the fact that the square and all the streets around it were thronged with cheerful excited people. Somewhere a band was playing, brightly coloured flags were fluttering in the breeze and the spirit of carnival was in the air.
Arthur felt extraordinarily lonely stuck up in the air above it all without so much as a body to his name, but before he had time to reflect on this a voice rang out across the square and called for everyone's attention.
A man standing on a brightly dressed dais before the building which clearly dominated the square was addressing the crowd over a Tannoy.
``O people waiting in the Shadow of Deep Thought!'' he cried out. ``Honoured Descendants of Vroomfondel and Majikthise, the Greatest and Most Truly Interesting Pundits the Universe has ever known ... The Time of Waiting is over!''
Wild cheers broke out amongst the crowd. Flags, streamers and wolf whistles sailed through the air. The narrower streets looked rather like centipedes rolled over on their backs and frantically waving their legs in the air.
``Seven and a half million years our race has waited for this Great and Hopefully Enlightening Day!'' cried the cheer leader. ``The Day of the Answer!''
Hurrahs burst from the ecstatic crowd.
``Never again,'' cried the man, ``never again will we wake up in the morning and think Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don't get up and go to work? For today we will finally learn once and for all the plain and simple answer to all these nagging little problems of Life, the Universe and Everything!''
As the crowd erupted once again, Arthur found himself gliding through the air and down towards one of the large stately windows on the first floor of the building behind the dais from which the speaker was addressing the crowd.
He experienced a moment's panic as he sailed straight through towards the window, which passed when a second or so later he found he had gone right through the solid glass without apparently touching it.
No one in the room remarked on his peculiar arrival, which is hardly surprising as he wasn't there. He began to realize that the whole experience was merely a recorded projection which knocked six-track seventy-millimetre into a cocked hat.
The room was much as Slartibartfast had described it. In seven and a half million years it had been well looked after and cleaned regularly every century or so. The ultramahagony desk was worn at the edges, the carpet a little faded now, but the large computer terminal sat in sparkling glory on the desk's leather top, as bright as if it had been constructed yesterday.
Two severely dressed men sat respectfully before the terminal and waited.
``The time is nearly upon us,'' said one, and Arthur was surprised to see a word suddenly materialize in thin air just by the man's neck. The word was Loonquawl, and it flashed a couple of times and the disappeared again. Before Arthur was able to assimilate this the other man spoke and the word Phouchg appeared by his neck.
``Seventy-five thousand generations ago, our ancestors set this program in motion,'' the second man said, ``and in all that time we will be the first to hear the computer speak.''
``An awesome prospect, Phouchg,'' agreed the first man, and Arthur suddenly realized that he was watching a recording with subtitles.
``We are the ones who will hear,'' said Phouchg, ``the answer to the great question of Life ...!''
``The Universe ...!'' said Loonquawl.
``And Everything ...!''
``Shhh,'' said Loonquawl with a slight gesture, ``I think Deep Thought is preparing to speak!''
There was a moment's expectant pause whilst panels slowly came to life on the front of the console. Lights flashed on and off experimentally and settled down into a businesslike pattern. A soft low hum came from the communication channel.
``Good morning,'' said Deep Thought at last.
``Er ... Good morning, O Deep Thought,'' said Loonquawl nervously, ``do you have ... er, that is ...''
``An answer for you?'' interrupted Deep Thought majestically. ``Yes. I have.''
The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.
``There really is one?'' breathed Phouchg.
``There really is one,'' confirmed Deep Thought.
``To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything?''
Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.
``And you're ready to give it to us?'' urged Loonquawl.
``Now,'' said Deep Thought.
They both licked their dry lips.
``Though I don't think,'' added Deep Thought, ``that you're going to like it.''
``Doesn't matter!'' said Phouchg. ``We must know it! Now!''
``Now?'' inquired Deep Thought.
``Yes! Now ...''
``Alright,'' said the computer and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
``You're really not going to like it,'' observed Deep Thought.
``Alright,'' said Deep Thought. ``The Answer to the Great Question ...''
``Of Life, the Universe and Everything ...'' said Deep Thought.
``Is ...'' said Deep Thought, and paused.
``Forty-two,'' said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.