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Chapter Twelve

A short while later he was running across the plain in the direction of the ruined city.

The dank air wheezed heavily in his lungs and he frequently stumbled with the exhaustion he was still feeling. Night was beginning to fall too, and the rough ground was treacherous.

The elation of his recent experience was still with him though. The whole Universe. He had seen the whole Universe stretching to infinity around him --- everything. And with it had come the clear and extraordinary knowledge that he was the most important thing in it. Having a conceited ego is one thing. Actually being told by a machine is another.

He didn't have time to reflect on this matter.

Gargravarr had told him that he would have to alert his masters as to what had happened, but that he was prepared to leave a decent interval before doing so. Enough time for Zaphod to make a break and find somewhere to hide.

What he was going to do he didn't know, but feeling that he was the most important person in the Universe gave him the confidence to believe that something would turn up.

Nothing else on this blighted planet could give him much grounds for optimism.

He ran on, and soon reached the outskirts of the abandoned city.

He walked along cracked and gaping roads riddled with scrawny weeds, the holes filled with rotting shoes. The buildings he passed were so crumbled and decrepit he thought it unsafe to enter any of them. Where could he hide? He hurried on.

After a while the remains of a wide sweeping road led off from the one down which he was walking, and at its end lay a vast low building, surrounded with sundry smaller ones, the whole surrounded by the remains of a perimeter barrier. The large main building still seemed reasonably solid, and Zaphod turned off to see if it might provide him with ... well with anything.

He approached the building. Along one side of it --- the front it would seem since it faced a wide concreted apron area --- were three gigantic doors, maybe sixty feet high. The far one of these was open, and towards this, Zaphod ran.

Inside, all was gloom, dust and confusion. Giant cobwebs lay over everything. Part of the infrastructure of the building had collapsed, part of the rear wall had caved in, and a thick choking dust lay inches over the floor.

Through the heavy gloom huge shapes loomed, covered with debris.

The shapes were sometimes cylindrical, sometimes bulbous, sometimes like eggs, or rather cracked eggs. Most of them were split open or falling apart, some were mere skeletons.

They were all spacecraft, all derelict.

Zaphod wandered in frustration among the hulks. There was nothing here that remotely approached the serviceable. Even the mere vibration of his footsteps caused one precarious wreck to collapse further into itself.

Towards the rear of the building lay one old ship, slightly larger than the others, and buried beneath even deeper piles of dust and cobwebs. Its outline, however, seemed unbroken. Zaphod approached it with interest, and as he did so, he tripped over an old feedline.

He tried to toss the feedline aside, and to his surprise discovered that it was still connected to the ship.

To his utter astonishment he realized that the feedline was also humming slightly.

He stared at the ship in disbelief, and then back down at the feedline in his hands.

He tore off his jacket and threw it aside. Crawling along on his hands and knees he followed the feedline to the point where it connected with the ship. The connection was sound, and the slight humming vibration was more distinct.

His heart was beating fast. He wiped away some grime and laid an ear against the ship's side. He could only hear a faint, indeterminate noise.

He rummaged feverishly amongst the debris lying on the floor all about him and found a short length of tubing, and a non-biodegradable plastic cup. Out of this he fashioned a crude stethoscope and placed it against the side of the ship.

What he heard made his brains turn somersaults.

The voice said:

``Transtellar Cruise Lines would like to apologize to passengers for the continuing delay to this flight. We are currently awaiting the loading of our complement of small lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment and hygiene during the journey. Meanwhile we thank you for your patience. The cabin crew will shortly be serving coffee and biscuits again.''

Zaphod staggered backwards, staring wildly at the ship.

He walked around for a few moments in a daze. In so doing he suddenly caught sight of a giant departure board still hanging, but by only one support, from the ceiling above him. It was covered with grime, but some of the figures were still discernible.

Zaphod's eyes searched amongst the figures, then made some brief calculations. His eyes widened.

``Nine hundred years ...'' he breathed to himself. That was how late the ship was.

Two minutes later he was on board.

As he stepped out of the airlock, the air that greeted him was cool and fresh --- the air conditioning was still working.

The lights were still on.

He moved out of the small entrance chamber into a short narrow corridor and stepped nervously down it.

Suddenly a door opened and a figure stepped out in front of him.

``Please return to your seat sir,'' said the android stewardess and, turning her back on him, she walked on down the corridor in front of him.

When his heart had started beating again he followed her. She opened the door at the end of the corridor and walked through.

He followed her through the door.

They were now in the passenger compartment and Zaphod's heart stopped still again for a moment.

In every seat sat a passenger, strapped into his or her seat.

The passengers' hair was long and unkempt, their fingernails were long, the men wore beards.

All of them were quite clearly alive --- but sleeping.

Zaphod had the creeping horrors.

He walked slowly down the aisle as in a dream. By the time he was half-way down the aisle, the stewardess had reached the other end. She turned and spoke.

``Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,'' she said sweetly, ``Thank you for bearing with us during this slight delay. We will be taking off as soon as we possibly can. If you would like to wake up now I will serve you coffee and biscuits.''

There was a slight hum.

At that moment, all the passengers awoke.

They awoke screaming and clawing at their straps and life support systems that held them tightly in their seats. They screamed and bawled and hollered till Zaphod thought his ears would shatter.

They struggled and writhed as the stewardess patiently moved up the aisle placing a small cup of coffee and a packet of biscuits in front of each one of them.

Then one of them rose from his seat.

He turned and looked at Zaphod.

Zaphod's skin was crawling all over his body as if it was trying to get off. He turned and ran from the bedlam.

He plunged through the door and back into the corridor.

The man pursued him.

He raced in a frenzy to the end of the corridor, through the entrance chamber and beyond. He arrived on the flight deck, slammed and bolted the door behind him. He leant back against the door breathing hard.

Within seconds, a hand started beating on the door.

From somewhere on the flight deck a metallic voice addressed him.

``Passengers are not allowed on the flight deck. Please return to your seat, and wait for the ship to take off. Coffee and biscuits are being served. This is your autopilot speaking. Please return to your seat.''

Zaphod said nothing. He breathed hard, behind him, the hand continued to knock on the door.

``Please return to your seat,'' repeated the autopilot. ``Passengers are not allowed on the flight deck.''

``I'm not a passenger,'' panted Zaphod.

``Please return to your seat.''

``I am not a passenger!'' shouted Zaphod again.

``Please return to your seat.''

``I am not a ... hello, can you hear me?''

``Please return to your seat.''

You're the autopilot?`` said Zaphod.

``Yes,'' said the voice from the flight console.

``You're in charge of this ship?''

``Yes,'' said the voice again, ``there has been a delay. Passengers are to be kept temporarily in suspended animation, for their comfort and convenience. Coffee and biscuits are being served every year, after which passengers are returned to suspended animation for their continued comfort and convenience. Departure will take place when the flight stores are complete. We apologize for the delay.''

Zaphod moved away from the door, on which the pounding had now ceased. He approached the flight console.

``Delay?'' he cried, ``Have you seen the world outside this ship? It's a wasteland, a desert. Civilization's been and gone, man. There are no lemon-soaked paper napkins on the way from anywhere!''

``The statistical likelihood,'' continued the autopilot primly, ``is that other civilizations will arise. There will one day be lemon-soaked paper napkins. Till then there will be a short delay. Please return to your seat.''

``But ...''

But at that moment the door opened. Zaphod span round to see the man who had pursued him standing there. He carried a large briefcase. He was smartly dressed, and his hair was short. He had no beard and no long fingernails.

``Zaphod Beeblebrox,'' he said, ``My name is Zarniwoop. I believe you wanted to see me.''

Zaphod Beeblebrox wittered. His mouths said foolish things. He dropped into a chair.

``Oh man, oh man, where did you spring from?'' he said.

``I've been waiting here for you,'' he said in a businesslike tone.

He put the briefcase down and sat in another chair.

``I am glad you followed instructions,'' he said, ``I was a bit nervous that you might have left my office by the door rather than the window. Then you would have been in trouble.''

Zaphod shook his heads at him and burbled.

``When you entered the door of my office, you entered my electronically synthesized Universe,'' he explained, ``if you had left by the door you would have been back in the real one. The artificial one works from here.''

He patted the briefcase smugly.

Zaphod glared at him with resentment and loathing.

``What's the difference?'' he muttered.

``Nothing,'' said Zarniwoop, ``they are identical. Oh --- except that I think the Frogstar Fighters are grey in the real Universe.''

``What's going on?'' spat Zaphod.

``Simple,'' said Zarniwoop. His self assurance and smugness made Zaphod seethe.

``Very simple,'' repeated Zarniwoop, ``I discovered the coordinated at which this man could be found --- the man who rules the Universe, and discovered that his world was protected by an Unprobability field. To protect my secret --- and myself --- I retreated to the safety of this totally artificial Universe and hid myself away in a forgotten cruise liner. I was secure. Meanwhile, you and I ...''

``You and I?'' said Zaphod angrily, ``you mean I knew you?''

``Yes,'' said Zarniwoop, ``we knew each other well.''

``I had no taste,'' said Zaphod and resumed a sullen silence.

``Meanwhile, you and I arranged that you would steal the Improbability Drive ship --- the only one which could reach the ruler's world --- and bring it to me here. This you have now done I trust, and I congratulate you.'' He smiled a tight little smile which Zaphod wanted to hit with a brick.

``Oh, and in case you were wondering,'' added Zarniwoop, ``this Universe was created specifically for you to come to. You are therefore the most important person in this Universe. You would never,'' he said with an even more brickable smile, ``have survived the Total Perspective Vortex in the real one. Shall we go?''

``Where?'' said Zaphod sullenly. He felt collapsed.

``To your ship. The Heart of Gold. You did bring it I trust?''

``No.''

``Where is your jacket?''

Zaphod looked at him in mystification.

``My jacket? I took it off. It's outside.''

``Good, we will go and find it.''

Zarniwoop stood up and gestured to Zaphod to follow him.

Out in the entrance chamber again, they could hear the screams of the passengers being fed coffee and biscuits.

``It has not been a pleasant experience waiting for you,'' said Zarniwoop.

``Not pleasant for you!'' bawled Zaphod, ``How do you think ...''

Zarniwoop held up a silencing finger as the hatchway swung open. A few feet away from them they could see Zaphod's jacket lying in the debris.

``A very remarkable and very powerful ship,'' said Zarniwoop, ``watch.''

As they watched, the pocket on the jacket suddenly bulged. It split, it ripped. The small metal model of the Heart of Gold that Zaphod had been bewildered to discover in his pocket was growing.

It grew, it continued to grow. It reached, after two minutes, its full size.

``At an Improbability Level,'' said Zarniwoop, ``of ... oh I don't know, but something very large.''

Zaphod swayed.

``You mean I had it with me all the time?''

``Zarniwoop smiled. He lifted up his briefcase and opened it.

He twisted a single switch inside it.

``Goodbye artificial Universe,'' he said, ``hello real one!''

The scene before them shimmered briefly --- and reappeared exactly as before.

``You see?'' said Zarniwoop, ``exactly the same.''

``You mean,'' repeated Zaphod tautly, ``that I had it with me all the time?''

``Oh yes,'' said Zarniwoop, ``of course. That was the whole point.''

``That's it,'' said Zaphod, ``you can count me out, from hereon in you can count me out. I've had all I want of this. You play your own games.''

``I'm afraid you cannot leave,'' said Zarniwoop, ``you are entwined in the Improbability field. You cannot escape.''

He smiled the smile that Zaphod had wanted to hit and this time Zaphod hit it.


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