He put down the empty cup he was carrying and walked over to them.
``Hello?'' he said.
At that moment Zaphod flung himself over to the polished marble surfaces that contained the instruments that controlled the conventional photon drive. They materialized beneath his hands and he flipped over to manual control. He pushed, he pulled, he pressed and he swore. The photon drive gave a sickly judder and cut out again.
``Something up?'' said Arthur.
``Hey, didja hear that?'' muttered Zaphod as he leapt now for the manual controls of the Infinite Improbability Drive, ``the monkey spoke!''
The Improbability Drive gave two small whines and then also cut out.
``Pure history, man,'' said Zaphod, kicking the Improbability Drive, ``a talking monkey!''
``If you're upset about something ...'' said Arthur.
``Vogons!'' snapped Ford, ``we're under attack!''
``Well what are you doing? Let's get out of here!''
``Can't. Computer's jammed.''
``It says all its circuits are occupied. There's no power anywhere in the ship.''
Ford moved away from the computer terminal, wiped a sleeve across his forehead and slumped back against the wall.
``Nothing we can do,'' he said. He glared at nothing and bit his lip.
When Arthur had been a boy at school, long before the Earth had been demolished, he had used to play football. He had not been at all good at it, and his particular speciality had been scoring own goals in important matches. Whenever this happened he used to experience a peculiar tingling round the back of his neck that would slowly creep up across his cheeks and heat his brow. The image of mud and grass and lots of little jeering boys flinging it at him suddenly came vividly to his mind at this moment.
A peculiar tingling sensation at the back of his neck was creeping up across his cheeks and heating his brow.
He started to speak, and stopped.
He started to speak again and stopped again.
Finally he managed to speak.
``Er,'' he said. He cleared his throat.
``Tell me,'' he continued, and said it so nervously that the others all turned to stare at him. He glanced at the approaching yellow blob on the vision screen.
``Tell me,'' he said again, ``did the computer say what was occupying it? I just ask out of interest ...''
Their eyes were riveted on him.
``And, er ... well that's it really, just asking.''
Zaphod put out a hand and held Arthur by the scruff of the neck.
``What have you done to it, Monkeyman?'' he breathed.
``Well,'' said Arthur, ``nothing in fact. It's just that I think a short while ago it was trying to work out how to ...''
``Make me some tea.''
``That's right guys,'' the computer sang out suddenly, ``just coping with that problem right now, and wow, it's a biggy. Be with you in a while.'' It lapsed back into a silence that was only matched for sheer intensity by the silence of the three people staring at Arthur Dent.
As if to relieve the tension, the Vogons chose that moment to start firing.
The ship shook, the ship thundered. Outside, the inch thick force-shield around it blistered, crackled and spat under the barrage of a dozen 30-Megahurt Definit-Kil Photrazon Cannon, and looked as if it wouldn't be around for long. Four minutes is how long Ford Prefect gave it.``Three minutes and fifty seconds,'' he said a short while later.
``Forty-five seconds,'' he added at the appropriate time. He flicked idly at some useless switches, then gave Arthur an unfriendly look.
``Dying for a cup of tea, eh?'' he said. ``Three minutes and forty seconds.''
``Will you stop counting!'' snarled Zaphod.
``Yes,'' said Ford Prefect, ``in three minutes and thirty-five seconds.''
Aboard the Vogon ship, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz was puzzled. He had expected a chase, he had expected an exciting grapple with tractor beams, he had expected to have to use the specially installed Sub-Cyclic Normality Assert-i-Tron to counter the Heart of Gold's Infinite Improbability Drive, but the Sub-Cyclic Normality Assert-i-Tron lay idle as the Heart of Gold just sat there and took it.
A dozen 30-Megahurt Definit-Kil Photrazon Cannon continued to blaze away at the Heart of Gold, and still it just sat there and took it.
He tested every sensor at his disposal to see if there was any subtle trickery afoot, but no subtle trickery was to be found.
He didn't know about the tea of course.
Nor did he know exactly how the occupants of the Heart of Gold were spending the last three minutes and thirty seconds of life they had left to spend.
Quite how Zaphod Beeblebrox arrived at the idea of holding a seance at this point is something he was never quite clear on.
Obviously the subject of death was in the air, but more as something to be avoided than harped upon.
Possibly the horror that Zaphod experienced at the prospect of being reunited with his deceased relatives led on to the thought that they might just feel the same way about him and, what's more, be able to do something about helping to postpone this reunion.
Or again it might just have been one of the strange promptings that occasionally surfaced from that dark area of his mind that he had inexplicably locked off prior to becoming President of the Galaxy.
``You want to talk to your great grandfather?'' boggled Ford.
``Does it have to be now?''
The ship continued to shake and thunder. The temperature was rising. The light was getting dimmer --- all the energy the computer didn't require for thinking about tea was being pumped into the rapidly fading force-field.
``Yeah!'' insisted Zaphod. ``Listen Ford, I think he may be able to help us.''
``Are you sure you mean think? Pick your words with care.''
``Suggest something else we can do.''
``Er, well ...''
``OK, round the central console. Now. Come on! Trillian, Monkeyman, move.''
They clustered round the central console in confusion, sat down and, feeling exceptionally foolish, held hands. With his third hand Zaphod turned off the lights.
Darkness gripped the ship.
Outside, the thunderous roar of the Definit-Kil cannon continued to rip at the force-field.
``Concentrate,'' hissed Zaphod, ``on his name.''
``What is it?'' asked Arthur.
``Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth.''
``Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth. Concentrate!''
``Yeah. Listen, I'm Zaphod Beeblebrox, my father was Zaphod Beeblebrox the Second, my grandfather Zaphod Beeblebrox the Third ...''
``There was an accident with a contraceptive and a time machine. Now concentrate!''
``Three minutes,'' said Ford Prefect.
``Why,'' said Arthur Dent, ``are we doing this?''
``Shut up,'' suggested Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Trillian said nothing. What, she thought, was there to say?
The only light on the bridge came from two dim red triangles in a far corner where Marvin the Paranoid Android sat slumped, ignoring all and ignored by all, in a private and rather unpleasant world of his own.
Round the central console four figures hunched in tight concentration trying to blot from their minds the terrifying shuddering of the ship and the fearful roar that echoed through it.
Still they concentrated.
And still they concentrated.
The seconds ticked by.
On Zaphod's brow stood beads of sweat, first of concentration, then of frustration and finally of embarrassment.
At last he let out a cry of anger, snatched back his hands from Trillian and Ford and stabbed at the light switch.
``Ah, I was beginning to think you'd never turn the lights on,'' said a voice. ``No, not too bright please, my eyes aren't what they once were.''
Four figures jolted upright in their seats. Slowly they turned their heads to look, though their scalps showed a distinct propensity to try and stay in the same place.
``Now. Who disturbs me at this time?'' said the small, bent, gaunt figure standing by the sprays of fern at the far end of the bridge. His two small wispy-haired heads looked so ancient that it seemed they might hold dim memories of the birth of the galaxies themselves. One lolled in sleep, but the other squinted sharply at them. If his eyes weren't what they once were, they must once have been diamond cutters.
Zaphod stuttered nervously for a moment. He gave the intricate little double nod which is the traditional Betelgeusian gesture of familial respect.
``Oh ... er, hi Great Granddad ...'' he breathed.
The little old figure moved closer towards them. He peered through the dim light. He thrust out a bony finger at his great grandson.
``Ah,'' he snapped. ``Zaphod Beeblebrox. The last of our great line. Zaphod Beeblebrox the Nothingth.''
``The Nothingth,'' spat the figure. Zaphod hated his voice. It always seemed to him to screech like fingernails across the blackboard of what he liked to think of as his soul.
He shifted awkwardly in his seat.
``Er, yeah,'' he muttered, ``Er, look, I'm really sorry about the flowers, I meant to send them along, but you know, the shop was fresh out of wreaths and ...''
``You forget!'' snapped Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth.
``Too busy. Never think of other people. The living are all the same.''
``Two minutes, Zaphod,'' whispered Ford in an awed whisper.
Zaphod fidgeted nervously.
``Yeah, but I did mean to send them,'' he said. ``And I'll write to my great grandmother as well, just as soon as we get out of this ...''
``Your great grandmother,'' mused the gaunt little figure to himself.
``Yeah,'' said Zaphod, ``Er, how is she? Tell you what, I'll go and see her. But first we've just got to ...''
``Your late great grandmother and I are very well,'' rasped Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth.
``But very disappointed in you, young Zaphod ...''
``Yeah well ...'' Zaphod felt strangely powerless to take charge of this conversation, and Ford's heavy breathing at his side told him that the seconds were ticking away fast. The noise and the shaking had reached terrifying proportions. He saw Trillian and Arthur's faces white and unblinking in the gloom.
``Er, Great Grandfather ...''
``We've been following your progress with considerable despondency ...''
``Yeah, look, just at the moment you see ...''
``Not to say contempt!''
``Could you sort of listen for a moment ...''
``I mean what exactly are you doing with your life?''
``I'm being attacked by a Vogon fleet!'' cried Zaphod. It was an exaggeration, but it was his only opportunity so far of getting the basic point of the exercise across.
``Doesn't surprise me in the least,'' said the little old figure with a shrug.
``Only it's happening right now you see,'' insisted Zaphod feverishly.
The spectral ancestor nodded, picked up the cup Arthur Dent had brought in and looked at it with interest.
``Er ... Great Granddad ...''
``Did you know,'' interrupting the ghostly figure, fixing Zaphod with a stern look, ``that Betelgeuse Five has developed a very slight eccentricy in its orbit?''
Zaphod didn't and found the information hard to concentrate on what with all the noise and the imminence of death and so on.
``Er, no ... look,'' he said.
``Me spinning in my grave!'' barked the ancestor. He slammed the cup down and pointed a quivering, stick-like see-through finger at Zaphod.
``Your fault!'' he screeched.
``One minute thirty,'' muttered Ford, his head in his hands.
``Yeah, look Great Granddad, can you actually help because ...''
``Help?'' exclaimed the old man as if he'd been asked for a stoat.
``Yeah, help, and like, now, because otherwise ...''
``Help!'' repeated the old man as if he'd been asked for a lightly grilled stoat in a bun with French fries. He stood amazed.
``You go swanning your way round the Galaxy with your ...'' the ancestor waved a contemptuous hand, ``with your disreputable friends, too busy to put flowers on my grave, plastic ones would have done, would have been quite appropriate from you, but no. Too busy. Too modern. Too sceptical --- till you suddenly find yourself in a bit of a fix and come over suddenly all astrally-minded!''
He shook his head --- carefully, so as not to disturb the slumber of the other one, which was already becoming restive.
``Well, I don't know, young Zaphod,'' he continued, ``I think I'll have to think about this one.''
``One minute ten,'' said Ford hollowly.
Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth peered at him curiously.
``Why does that man keep talking in numbers?'' he said.
``Those numbers,'' said Zaphod tersely, ``are the time we've got left to live.''
``Oh,'' said his great grandfather. He grunted to himself. ``Doesn't apply to me, of course,'' he said and moved off to a dimmer recess of the bridge in search of something else to poke around at.
Zaphod felt he was teetering on the edge of madness and wondered if he shouldn't just jump over and have done with it.
``Great Grandfather,'' he said, ``It applies to us! We are still alive, and we are about to lose our lives.''
``Good job too.''
``What use is your life to anyone? When I think of what you've made of it the phrase `pig's ear' comes irresistibly to my mind.''
``But I was President of the Galaxy, man!''
``Huh,'' muttered his ancestor, ``And what kind of a job is that for a Beeblebrox?''
``Hey, what? Only President you know! Of the whole Galaxy!''
``Conceited little megapuppy.''
Zaphod blinked in bewilderment.
``Hey, er, what are you at, man? I mean Great Grandfather.''
The hunched up little figure stalked up to his great grandson and tapped him sternly on the knee. This had the effect of reminding Zaphod that he was talking to a ghost because he didn't feel a thing.
``You know and I know what being President means, young Zaphod. You know because you've been it, and I know because I'm dead and it gives one such a wonderfully uncluttered perspective. We have a saying up here. `Life is wasted on the living.'''
``Yeah,'' said Zaphod bitterly, ``very good. Very deep. Right now I need aphorisms like I need holes in my heads.''
``Fifty seconds,'' grunted Ford Prefect.
``Where was I?'' said Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth.
``Pontificating,'' said Zaphod Beeblebrox.
``Can this guy,'' muttered Ford quietly to Zaphod, ``actually in fact help us?''
``Nobody else can,'' whispered Zaphod.
Ford nodded despondently.
``Zaphod!'' the ghost was saying, ``you became President of the Galaxy for a reason. Have you forgotten?''
``Could we go into this later?''
``Have you forgotten!'' insisted the ghost.
``Yeah! Of course I forgot! I had to forget. They screen your brain when you get the job you know. If they'd found my head full of tricksy ideas I'd have been right out on the streets again with nothing but a fat pension, secretarial staff, a fleet of ships and a couple of slit throats.''
``Ah,'' nodded the ghost in satisfaction, ``then you do remember!''
He paused for a moment.
``Good,'' he said and the noise stopped.
``Forty-eight seconds,'' said Ford. He looked again at his watch and tapped it. He looked up.
``Hey, the noise has stopped,'' he said.
A mischievous twinkle gleamed in the ghost's hard little eyes.
``I've slowed down time for a moment,'' he said, ``just for a moment you understand. I would hate you to miss all I have to say.''
``No, you listen to me, you see-through old bat,'' said Zaphod leaping out of his chair, ``A --- thanks for stopping time and all that, great, terrific, wonderful, but B --- no thanks for the homily, right? I don't know what this great think I'm meant to be doing is, and it looks to me as if I was supposed not to know. And I resent that, right?
``The old me knew. The old me cared. Fine, so far so hoopy. Except that the old me cared so much that he actually got inside his own brain --- my own brain --- and locked off the bits that knew and cared, because if I knew and cared I wouldn't be able to do it. I wouldn't be able to go and be President, and I wouldn't be able to steal this ship, which must be the important thing.
``But this former self of mine killed himself off, didn't he, by changing my brain? OK, that was his choice. This new me has its own choices to make, and by a strange coincidence those choices involve not knowing and not caring about this big number, whatever it is. That's what he wanted, that's what he got.
``Except this old self of mine tried to leave himself in control, leaving orders for me in the bit of my brain he locked off. Well, I don't want to know, and I don't want to hear them. That's my choice. I'm not going to be anybody's puppet, particularly not my own.''
Zaphod banged the console in fury, oblivious to the dumbfolded looks he was attracting.
``The old me is dead!'' he raved, ``Killed himself! The dead shouldn't hang about trying to interfere with the living!''
``And yet you summon me up to help you out of a scrape,'' said the ghost.
``Ah,'' said Zaphod, sitting down again, ``well that's different isn't it?''
He grinned at Trillian, weakly.
``Zaphod,'' rasped the apparition, ``I think the only reason I waste my breath on you is that being dead I don't have any other use for it.''
``OK,'' said Zaphod, ``why don't you tell me what the big secret is. Try me.''
``Zaphod, you knew when you were President of the Galaxy, as did Yooden Vranx before you, that the President is nothing. A cipher. Somewhere in the shadows behind is another man, being, something, with ultimate power. That man, or being, or something, you must find --- the man who controls this Galaxy, and --- we suspect --- others. Possibly the entire Universe.''
``Why?'' exclaimed an astonished ghost, ``Why? Look around you lad, does it look to you as if it's in very good hands?''
The old ghost glowered at him.
``I will not argue with you. You will simply take this ship, this Improbability Drive ship to where it is needed. You will do it. Don't think you can escape your purpose. The Improbability Field controls you, you are in its grip. What's this?''
He was standing tapping at one of the terminals of Eddie the Shipboard Computer. Zaphod told him.
``What's it doing?''
``It is trying,'' said Zaphod with wonderful restraint, ``to make tea.''
``Good,'' said his great grandfather, ``I approve of that. Now Zaphod, ''he said, turning and wagging a finger at him, ``I don't know if you are really capable of succeeding in your job. I think you will not be able to avoid it. However, I am too long dead and too tired to care as much as I did. The principal reason I am helping you now is that I couldn't bear the thought of you and your modern friends slouching about up here. Understood?''
``Yeah, thanks a bundle.''
``Oh, and Zaphod?''
``If you ever find you need help again, you know, if you're in trouble, need a hand out of a tight corner ...''
``Please don't hesitate to get lost.''
Within the space of one second, a bolt of light flashed from the wizened old ghost's hands to the computer, the ghost vanished, the bridge filled with billowing smoke and the Heart of Gold leapt an unknown distance through the dimensions of time and space.