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Chapter Nine

The air around the second planet of the Frogstar system was stale and unwholesome.

The dank winds that swept continually over its surface swept over salt flats, dried up marshland, tangled and rotting vegetation and the crumbling remains of ruined cities. No life moved across its surface. The ground, like that of many planets in this part of the Galaxy, had long been deserted.

The howl of the wind was desolate enough as it gusted through the old decaying houses of the cities; it was more desolate as it whipped about the bottoms of the tall black towers that swayed uneasily here and there about the surface of this world. At the top of these towers lived colonies of large, scraggy, evil smelling birds, the sole survivors of the civilization that once lived here.

The howl of the wind was at its most desolate, however, when it passed over a pimple of a place set in the middle of a wide grey plain on the outskirts of the largest of the abandoned cities.

This pimple of a place was the thing that had earned this world the reputation of being the most totally evil place in the Galaxy. From without it was simply a steel dome about thirty feet across. From within it was something more monstrous than the mind can comprehend.

About a hundred yards or so away, and separated from it by a pockmarked and blasted stretch of the most barren land imaginable was what would probably have to be described as a landing pad of sorts. That is to say that scattered over a largish area were the ungainly hulks of two or three dozen crash-landed buildings.

Flitting over and around these buildings was a mind, a mind that was waiting for something.

The mind directed its attention into the air, and before very long a distant speck appeared, surrounded by a ring of smaller specks.

The larger speck was the left-hand tower of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy office building, descending through the stratosphere of Frogstar World B.

As it descended, Roosta suddenly broke the long uncomfortable silence that had grown up between the two men.

He stood up and gathered his towel into a bag. He said:

``Beeblebrox, I will now do the job I was sent here to do.''

Zaphod looked up at him from where he was sitting in a corner sharing unspoken thoughts with Marvin.

``Yeah?'' he said.

``The building will shortly be landing. When you leave the building, do not go out of the door,'' said Roosta, ``go out of the window.''

``Good luck,'' he added, and walked out of the door, disappearing from Zaphod's life as mysteriously as he had entered it.

Zaphod leapt up and tried the door, but Roosta had already looked it. He shrugged and returned to the corner.

Two minutes later, the building crashlanded amongst the other wreckage. Its escort of Frogstar Fighters deactivated their force beams and soared off into the air again, bound for Frogstar World A, an altogether more congenial spot. They never landed on Frogstar World B. No one did. No one ever walked on its surface other than the intended victims of the Total Perspective Vortex.

Zaphod was badly shaken by the crash. He lay for a while in the silent dusty rubble to which most of the room had been reduced. He felt that he was at the lowest ebb he had ever reached in his life. He felt bewildered, he felt lonely, he felt unloved. Eventually he felt he ought to get whatever it was over with.

He looked around the cracked and broken room. The wall had split round the door frame, and the door hung open. The window, by some miracle was closed and unbroken. For a while he hesitated, then he thought that if his strange and recent companion had been through all that he had been through just to tell him what he had told him, then there must be a good reason for it. With Marvin's help he got the window open. Outside it, the cloud of dust aroused by the crash, and the hulks of the other buildings with which this one was surrounded, effectively prevented Zaphod from seeing anything of the world outside.

Not that this concerned him unduly. His main concern was what he saw when he looked down. Zarniwoop's office was on the fifteenth floor. The building had landed at a tilt of about forty-five degrees, but still the descent looked heart-stopping.

Eventually, stung by the continuous series of contemptuous looks that Marvin appeared to be giving him, he took a deep breath and clambered out on to the steeply inclined side of the building. Marvin followed him, and together they began to crawl slowly and painfully down the fifteen floors that separated them from the ground.

As he crawled, the dank air and dust choked his lungs, his eyes smarted and the terrifying distance down made his heads spin.

The occasional remark from Marvin of the order of ``This is the sort of thing you lifeforms enjoy is it? I ask merely for information,'' did little to improve his state of mind.

About half-way down the side of the shattered building they stopped to rest. It seemed to Zaphod as he lay there panting with fear and exhaustion that Marvin seemed a mite more cheerful than usual. Eventually he realized this wasn't so. The robot just seemed cheerful in comparison with his own mood.

A large, scraggy black bird came flapping through the slowly settling clouds of dust and, stretching down its scrawny legs, landed on an inclined window ledge a couple of yards from Zaphod. It folded its ungainly wings and teetered awkwardly on its perch.

Its wingspan must have been something like six feet, and its head and neck seemed curiously large for a bird. Its face was flat, the beak underdeveloped, and half-way along the underside of its wings the vestiges of something handlike could be clearly seen.

In fact, it looked almost human.

It turned its heavy eyes on Zaphod and clicked its beak in a desultory fashion.

``Go away,'' said Zaphod.

``OK,'' muttered the bird morosely and flapped off into the dust again.

Zaphod watched its departure in bewilderment.

``Did that bird just talk to me?'' he asked Marvin nervously. He was quite prepared to believe the alternative explanation, that he was in fact hallucinating.

``Yes,'' confirmed Marvin.

``Poor souls,'' said a deep, ethereal voice in Zaphod's ear.

Twisting round violently to find the source of the voice nearly caused Zaphod to fall off the building. He grabbed savagely at a protruding window fitting and cut his hand on it. He hung on, breathing heavily.

The voice had no visible source whatever --- there was no one there. Nevertheless, it spoke again.

``A tragic history behind them, you know. A terrible blight.''

Zaphod looked wildly about. The voice was deep and quiet. In other circumstances it would even be described as soothing. There is, however, nothing soothing about being addressed by a disembodied voice out of nowhere, particularly if you are, like Zaphod Beeblebrox, not at your best and hanging from a ledge eight storeys up a crashed building.

``Hey, er ...'' he stammered.

``Shall I tell you their story?'' inquired the voice quietly.

``Hey, who are you?'' panted Zaphod. ``Where are you?''

``Later then, perhaps,'' murmured the voice. ``I am Gargravarr. I am the Custodian of the Total Perspective Vortex.''

``Why can't I see ...''

``You will find your progress down the building greatly facilitated,'' the voice lifted, ``if you move about two yards to your left. Why don't you try it?''

Zaphod looked and saw a series of short horizontal grooves leading all the way down the side of the building. Gratefully he shifted himself across to them.

``Why don't I see you again at the bottom?'' said the voice in his ear, and as it spoke it faded.

``Hey,'' called out Zaphod, ``Where are you ...''

``It'll only take a couple of minutes ...'' said the voice very faintly.

``Marvin,'' said Zaphod earnestly to the robot squatting dejectedly next to him, ``Did a ... did a voice just ...''

``Yes,'' Marvin replied tersely.

Zaphod nodded. He took out his Peril Sensitive Sunglasses again. They were completely black, and by now quite badly scratched by the unexpected metal object in his pocket. He put them on. He would find his way down the building more comfortably if he didn't actually have to look at what he was doing.

Minutes later he clambered over the ripped and mangled foundations of the building and, once more removing his sunglasses, he dropped to the ground.

Marvin joined him a moment or so later and lay face down in the dust and rubble, from which position he seemed too disinclined to move.

``Ah, there you are,'' said the voice suddenly in Zaphod's ear, ``excuse me leaving you like that, it's just that I have a terrible head for heights. At least,'' it added wistfully, ``I did have a terrible head for heights.''

Zaphod looked around slowly and carefully, just to see if he had missed something which might be the source of the voice. All he saw, however, was the dust, the rubble and the towering hulks of the encircling buildings.

``Hey, er, why can't I see you?'' he said, ``why aren't you here?''

``I am here,'' said the voice slowly, ``my body wanted to come but it's a bit busy at the moment. Things to do, people to see.'' After what seemed like a sort of ethereal sigh it added, ``You know how it is with bodies.''

Zaphod wasn't sure about this.

``I thought I did,'' he said.

``I only hope it's gone for a rest cure,'' continued the voice, ``the way it's been living recently it must be on its last elbows.''

``Elbows?'' said Zaphod, ``don't you mean last legs?''

The voice said nothing for a while. Zaphod looked around uneasily. He didn't know if it was gone or was still there or what it was doing. Then the voice spoke again.

``So, you are to be put into the Vortex, yes?''

``Er, well,'' said Zaphod with a very poor attempt at nonchalance, ``this cat's in no hurry, you know. I can just slouch about and take in a look at the local scenery, you know?''

``Have you seen the local scenery?'' asked the voice of Gargravarr.

``Er, no.''

Zaphod clambered over the rubble, and rounded the corner of one of the wrecked buildings that was obscuring his view.

He looked out at the landscape of Frogstar World B.

``Ah, OK,'' he said, ``I'll just sort of slouch about then.''

``No,'' said Gargravarr, ``the Vortex is ready for you now. You must come. Follow me.''

``Er, yeah?'' said Zaphod, ``and how am I meant to do that?''

``I'll hum for you,'' said Gargravarr, ``follow the humming.''

A soft keening sound drifted through the air, a pale, sad sound that seemed to be without any kind of focus. It was only by listening very carefully that Zaphod was able to detect the direction from which it was coming. Slowly, dazedly, he stumbled off in its wake. What else was there to do?


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