Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!
Previous Next Index


Chapter Seventeen

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy notes that Disaster Area, a plutonium rock band from the Gagrakacka Mind Zones, are generally held to be not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind at all. Regular concert goers judge that the best sound balance is usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles from the stage, whilst the musicians themselves play their instruments by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stays in orbit around the planet --- or more frequently around a completely different planet.

Their songs are on the whole very simple and mostly follow the familiar theme of boy-being meets girl-being beneath a silvery moon, which then explodes for no adequately explored reason.

Many worlds have now banned their act altogether, sometimes for artistic reasons, but most commonly because the band's public address system contravenes local strategic arms limitations treaties.

This has not, however, stopped their earnings from pushing back the boundaries of pure hypermathematics, and their chief research accountant has recently been appointed Professor of Neomathematics at the University of Maximegalon, in recognition of both his General and his Special Theories of Disaster Area Tax Returns, in which he proves that the whole fabric of the space-time continuum is not merely curved, it is in fact totally bent.

Ford staggered back to the table where Zaphod, Arthur and Trillian were sitting waiting for the fun to begin.

``Gotta have some food,'' said Ford.

``Hi, Ford,'' said Zaphod, ``you speak to the big noise boy?''

Ford waggled his head noncommittally.

``Hotblack? I sort of spoke to him, yeah.''

``What'd he say?''

``Well, not a lot really. He's ... er ...''

``Yeah?''

``He's spending a year dead for tax reasons. I've got to sit down.''

He sat down.

The waiter approached.

``Would you like to see the menu?'' he said, ``or would you like to meet the Dish of the Day?''

``Huh?'' said Ford.

``Huh?'' said Arthur.

``Huh?'' said Trillian.

``That's cool,'' said Zaphod, ``we'll meet the meat.''

In a small room in one of the arms of the Restaurant complex a tall, thin, gangling figure pulled aside a curtain and oblivion looked him in the face.

It was not a pretty face, perhaps because oblivion had looked him in it so many times. It was too long for a start, the eyes too sunken and too hooded, the cheeks too hollow, his lips were too thin and too long, and when they parted his teeth looked too much like a recently polished bay window. The hands that held the curtain were long and thin too: they were also cold. They lay lightly along the folds of the curtain and gave the impression that if he didn't watch them like a hawk they would crawl away of their own accord and do something unspeakable in a corner.

He let the curtain drop and the terrible light that had played on his features went off to play somewhere more healthy. He prowled around his small chamber like a mantis contemplating an evening's preying, finally settling on a rickety chair by a trestle table, where he leafed through a few sheets of jokes.

A bell rang.

He pushed the thin sheaf of papers aside and stood up. His hands brushed limply over some of the one million rainbow-coloured sequins with which his jacket was festooned, and he was gone through the door.

In the Restaurant the lights dimmed, the band quickened its pace, a single spotlight stabbed down into the darkness of the stairway that led up to the centre of the stage.

Up the stairs bounded bounded a tall brilliantly coloured figure. He burst on to the stage, tripped lightly up to the microphone, removed it from its stand with one swoop of his long thin hand and stood for a moment bowing left and right to the audience acknowledging their applause and displaying to them his bay window. He waved to his particular friends in the audience even though there weren't any there, and waited for the applause to die down.

He held up his hand and smiled a smile that stretched not merely from ear to ear, but seemed to extend some way beyond the mere confines of his face.

``Thank you ladies and gentlemen!'' he cried, ``thank you very much. Thank you so much.''

He eyed them with a twinkling eye.

``Ladies and gentlemen,'' he said, ``The Universe as we know it has now been in existence for over one hundred and seventy thousand million billion years and will be ending in a little over half an hour. So, welcome one and all to Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!''

With a gesture he deftly conjured another round of spontaneous applause. With another gesture he cut it.

``I am your host for tonight,'' he said, ``my name is Max Quordlepleen ...'' (Everybody knew this, his act was famous throughout the known Galaxy, but he said it for the fresh applause it generated, which he acknowledged with a disclaiming smile and wave.) ``... and I've just come straight from the very very other end of time, where I've been hosting a show at the Big Bang Burger Bar --- where I can tell you we had a very exciting evening ladies and gentlemen --- and I will be with you right through this historic occasion, the End of History itself!''

Another burst of applause died away quickly as the lights dimmed down further. On every table candles ignited themselves spontaneously, eliciting a slight gasp from all the diners and wreathing them in a thousand tiny flickering lights and a million intimate shadows. A tremor of excitement thrilled through the darkened Restaurant as the vast golden dome above them began very very slowly to dim, to darken, to fade.

Max's voice was hushed as he continued.

``So, ladies and gentlemen,'' he breathed, ``the candles are lit, the band plays softly, and as the force-shielded dome above us fades into transparency, revealing a dark and sullen sky hung heavy with the ancient light of livid swollen stars, I can see we're all in for a fabulous evening's apocalypse!''

Even the soft tootling of the band faded away as stunned shock descended on all those who had not seen this sight before.

A monstrous, grisly light poured in on them,

--- a hideous light,

--- a boiling, pestilential light,

--- a light that would have disfigured hell.

The Universe was coming to an end.

For a few interminable seconds the Restaurant span silently through the raging void. Then Max spoke again.

``For those of you who ever hoped to see the light at the end of the tunnel,'' he said, ``this is it.''

The band struck up again.

``Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,'' cried Max, ``I'll be back with you again in just a moment, and meanwhile I leave you in the very capable hands of Mr Reg Nullify and his cataclysmic Combo. Big hand please ladies and gentlemen for Reg and the boys!''

The baleful turmoil of the skies continued.

Hesitantly the audience began to clap and after a moment or so normal conversation resumed. Max began his round of the tables, swapping jokes, shouting with laughter, earning his living.

A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox's table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

``Good evening,'' it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, ``I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?'' It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

``Something off the shoulder perhaps?'' suggested the animal, ``Braised in a white wine sauce?''

``Er, your shoulder?'' said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

``But naturally my shoulder, sir,'' mooed the animal contentedly, ``nobody else's is mine to offer.''

Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal's shoulder appreciatively.

``Or the rump is very good,'' murmured the animal. ``I've been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there's a lot of good meat there.'' It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

``Or a casserole of me perhaps?'' it added.

``You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?'' whispered Trillian to Ford.

``Me?'' said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes, ``I don't mean anything.''

``That's absolutely horrible,'' exclaimed Arthur, ``the most revolting thing I've ever heard.''

``What's the problem Earthman?'' said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal's enormous rump.

``I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing here inviting me to,'' said Arthur, ``it's heartless.''

``Better than eating an animal that doesn't want to be eaten,'' said Zaphod.

``That's not the point,'' Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. ``Alright,'' he said, ``maybe it is the point. I don't care, I'm not going to think about it now. I'll just ... er ...''

The Universe raged about him in its death throes.

``I think I'll just have a green salad,'' he muttered.

``May I urge you to consider my liver?'' asked the animal, ``it must be very rich and tender by now, I've been force-feeding myself for months.''

``A green salad,'' said Arthur emphatically.

``A green salad?'' said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.

``Are you going to tell me,'' said Arthur, ``that I shouldn't have green salad?''

``Well,'' said the animal, ``I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.''

It managed a very slight bow.

``Glass of water please,'' said Arthur.

``Look,'' said Zaphod, ``we want to eat, we don't want to make a meal of the issues. Four rare steaks please, and hurry. We haven't eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years.''

The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle.

``A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good,'' it said, ``I'll just nip off and shoot myself.''

He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur.

``Don't worry, sir,'' he said, ``I'll be very humane.''

It waddled unhurriedly off into the kitchen.

A matter of minutes later the waiter arrived with four huge steaming steaks. Zaphod and Ford wolfed straight into them without a second's hesitation. Trillian paused, then shrugged and started into hers.

Arthur stared at his feeling slightly ill.

``Hey, Earthman,'' said Zaphod with a malicious grin on the face that wasn't stuffing itself, ``what's eating you?''

And the band played on.

All around the Restaurant people and things relaxed and chatted. The air was filled with talk of this and that, and with the mingled scents of exotic plants, extravagant foods and insidious wines. For an infinite number of miles in every direction the universal cataclysm was gathering to a stupefying climax. Glancing at his watch, Max returned to the stage with a flourish.

``And now, ladies and gentlemen,'' he beamed, ``is everyone having one last wonderful time?''

``Yes,'' called out the sort of people who call out ``yes'' when comedians ask them if they're having a wonderful time.

``That's wonderful,'' enthused Max, ``absolutely wonderful. And as the photon storms gather in swirling crowds around us, preparing to tear apart the last of the red hot suns, I know you're all going to settle back and enjoy with me what I know we will find all an immensely exciting and terminal experience.''

He paused. He caught the audience with a glittering eye.

``Believe me, ladies and gentlemen,'' he said, ``there's nothing penultimate about this one.''

He paused again. Tonight his timing was immaculate. Time after time he had done this show, night after night. Not that the word night had any meaning here at the extremity of time. All there was was the endless repetition of the final moment, as the Restaurant rocked slowly forward over the brink of time's furthest edge --- and back again. This ``night'' was good though, the audience was writhing in the palm of his sickly hand. His voice dropped. They had to strain to hear him.

``This,'' he said, ``really is the absolute end, the final chilling desolation, in which the whole majestic sweep of creation becomes extinct. This ladies and gentlemen is the proverbial `it'.''

He dropped his voice still lower. In the stillness, a fly would not have dared cleat its throat.

``After this,'' he said, ``there is nothing. Void. Emptiness. Oblivion. Absolute nothing ...''

His eyes glittered again --- or did they twinkle?``

``Nothing ... except of course for the sweet trolley, and a fine selection of Aldebaran liqueurs!''

The band gave him a musical sting. He wished they wouldn't, he didn't need it, not an artist of his calibre. He could play the audience like his own musical instrument. They were laughing with relief. He followed on.

``And for once,'' he cried cheerily, ``you don't need to worry about having a hangover in the morning --- because there won't be any more mornings!''

He beamed at his happy, laughing audience. He glanced up at the sky, going through the same dead routine every night, but his glance was only for a fraction of a second. He trusted it to do its job, as one professional trusts another.

``And now,'' he said, strutting about the stage, ``at the risk of putting a damper on the wonderful sense of doom and futility here this evening, I would like to welcome a few parties.''

He pulled a card from his pocket.

``Do we have ...'' he put up a hand to hold back the cheers, ``Do we have a party here from the Zansellquasure Flamarion Bridge Club from beyond the Vortvoid of Qvarne? Are they here?''

A rousing cheer came from the back, but he pretended not to hear. He peered around trying to find them.

``Are they here?'' he asked again, to elict a louder cheer.

He got it, as he always did.

``Ah, there they are. Well, last bids lads --- and no cheating, remember this is a very solemn moment.''

He lapped up the laughter.

``And do we also have, do we have ... a party of minor deities from the Halls of Asgard?''

Away to his right came a rumble of thunder. Lightning arced across the stage. A small group of hairy men with helmets sat looking very pleased with themselves, and raised their glasses to him.

Hasbeens, he thought to himself.

``Careful with that hammer, sir,'' he said.

They did their trick with the lightning again. Max gave them a very thin lipped smile.

``And thirdly,'' he said, ``thirdly a party of Young Conservatives from Sirius B, are they here?''

A party of smartly dressed young dogs stopped throwing rolls at each other and started throwing rolls at the stage. They yapped and barked unintelligibly.

``Yes,'' said Max, ``well this is all your fault, you realize that?''

``And finally,'' said Max, quieting the audience down and putting on his solemn face, ``finally I believe we have with us here tonight, a party of believers, very devout believers, from the Church of the Second Coming of the Great Prophet Zarquon.''

There were about twenty of them, sitting right out on the edge of the floor, ascetically dressed, sipping mineral water nervously, and staying apart from the festivities. They blinked resentfully as the spotlight was turned on them.

``There they are,'' said Max, ``sitting there, patiently. He said he'd come again, and he's kept you waiting a long time, so let's hope he's hurrying fellas, because he's only got eight minutes left!''

The party of Zarquon's followers sat rigid, refusing to be buffeted by the waves of uncharitable laughter which swept over them.

Max restrained his audience.

``No, but seriously though folks, seriously though, no offence meant. No, I know we shouldn't make fun of deeply held beliefs, so I think a big hand please for the Great Prophet Zarquon ...''

The audience clapped respectfully.

``... wherever he's got to!''

He blew a kiss to the stony-faced party and returned to the centre of the stage.

He grabbed a tall stool and sat on it.

``It's marvellous though,'' he rattled on, ``to see so many of you here tonight --- no isn't it though? Yes, absolutely marvellous. Because I know that so many of you come here time and time again, which I think is really wonderful, to come and watch this final end of everything, and then return home to your own eras ... and raise families, strive for new and better societies, fight terrible wars for what you know to be right ... it really gives one hope for the future of all lifekind. Except of course,'' he waved at the blitzing turmoil above and around them, ``that we know it hasn't got one ...''

Arthur turned to Ford --- he hadn't quite got this place worked out in his mind.

``Look, surely,'' he said, ``if the Universe is about to end ... don't we go with it?''

Ford gave him a three-Pan-Galactic-Gargle-Blaster look, in other words a rather unsteady one.

``No,'' he said, ``look,'' he said, ``as soon as you come into this dive you get held in this sort of amazing force-shielded temporal warp thing. I think.''

``Oh,'' said Arthur. He turned his attention back to a bowl of soup he'd managed to get from the waiter to replace his steak.

``Look,'' said Ford, ``I'll show you.''

He grabbed at a napkin off the table and fumbled hopelessly with it.

``Look,'' he said again, ``imagine this napkin, right, as the temporal Universe, right? And this spoon as a transductional mode in the matter curve ...''

It took him a while to say this last part, and Arthur hated to interrupt him.

``That's the spoon I was eating with,'' he said.

``Alright,'' said Ford, ``imagine this spoon ...'' he found a small wooden spoon on a tray of relishes, ``this spoon ...'' but found it rather tricky to pick up, ``no, better still this fork ...''

``Hey would you let go of my fork?'' snapped Zaphod.

``Alright,'' said Ford, ``alright, alright. Why don't we say ... why don't we say that this wine glass is the temporal Universe ...''

``What, the one you've just knocked on the floor?''

``Did I do that?''

``Yes.''

``Alright,'' said Ford, ``forget that. I mean ... I mean, look, do you know --- do you know how the Universe actually began for a kick off?''

``Probably not,'' said Arthur, who wished he'd never embarked on any of this.

``Alright,'' said Ford, ``imagine this. Right. You get this bath. Right. A large round bath. And it's made of ebony.''

``Where from?'' said Arthur, ``Harrods was destroyed by the Vogons.''

``Doesn't matter.''

``So you keep saying.''

``Listen.''

``Alright.''

``You get this bath, see? Imagine you've got this bath. And it's ebony. And it's conical.''

``Conical?'' said Arthur, ``What sort of ...''

``Shhh!'' said Ford. ``It's conical. So what you do is, you see, you fill it with fine white sand, alright? Or sugar. Fine white sand, and/or sugar. Anything. Doesn't matter. Sugar's fine. And when it's full, you pull the plug out ... are you listening?''

``I'm listening.''

``You pull the plug out, and it all just twirls away, twirls away you see, out of the plughole.''

``I see.''

``You don't see. You don't see at all. I haven't got to the clever bit yet. You want to hear the clever bit?''

``Tell me the clever bit.''

``I'll tell you the clever bit.''

Ford thought for a moment, trying to remember what the clever bit was.

``The clever bit,'' he said, ``is this. You film it happening.''

``Clever.''

``That's not the clever bit. This is the clever bit, I remember now that this is the clever bit. The clever bit is that you then thread the film in the projector ... backwards!''

``Backwards?''

``Yes. Threading it backwards is definitely the clever bit. So then, you just sit and watch it, and everything just appears to spiral upwards out of the plughole and fill the bath. See?''

``And that's how the Universe began is it?'' said Arthur.

``No,'' said Ford, ``but it's a marvellous way to relax.''

He reached for his wine glass.

``Where's my wine glass?'' he said.

``It's on the floor.''

``Ah.''

Tipping back his chair to look for it, Ford collided with the small green waiter who was approaching the table carrying a portable telephone.

Ford excused himself to the waiter explaining that it was because he was extremely drunk.

The waiter said that that was quite alright and that he perfectly understood.

Ford thanked the waiter for his kind indulgence, attempted to tug his forelock, missed by six inches and slid under the table.

``Mr Zaphod Beeblebrox?'' inquired the waiter.

``Er, yeah?'' said Zaphod, glancing up from his third steak.

``There is a phone call for you.''

``Hey, what?''

``A phone call, sir.''

``For me? Here? Hey, but who knows where I am?''

One of his minds raced. The other dawdled lovingly over the food it was still shovelling in.

``Excuse me if I carry on, won't you?'' said his eating head and carried on.

There were now so many people after him he'd lost count. He shouldn't have made such a conspicuous entrance. Hell, why not though, he thought. How do you know you're having fun if there's no one watching you have it?

``Maybe someone here tipped off the Galactic Police,'' said Trillian. ``Everyone saw you come in.''

``You mean they want to arrest me over the phone?'' said Zaphod, ``Could be. I'm a pretty dangerous dude when I'm concerned.''

``Yeah,'' said a voice from under the table, ``you go to pieces so fast people get hit by the shrapnel.''

``Hey, what is this, Judgment Day?'' snapped Zaphod.

``Do we get to see that as well?'' asked Arthur nervously.

``I'm in no hurry,'' muttered Zaphod, ``OK, so who's the cat on the phone?'' He kicked Ford. ``Hey get up there, kid,'' he said to him, ``I may need you.''

``I am not,'' said the waiter, ``personally acquainted with the metal gentlemen in question, sir ...''

``Metal?''

``Yes, sir.''

``Did you say metal?''

``Yes, sir. I said that I am not personally acquainted with the metal gentleman in question ...''

``OK, carry on.''

``But I am informed that he has been awaiting your return for a considerable number of millennia. It seems you left here somewhat precipitately.''

``Left here?'' said Zaphod, ``are you being strange? We only just arrived here.''

``Indeed, sir,'' persisted the waiter doggedly, ``but before you arrived here, sir, I understand that you left here.''

Zaphod tried this in one brain, then in the other.

``You're saying,'' he said, ``that before we arrived here, we left here?''

This is going to be a long night, thought the waiter.

``Precisely, sir,'' he said.

``Put your analyst on danger money, baby,'' advised Zaphod.

``No, wait a minute,'' said Ford, emerging above table level again, ``where exactly is here?''

``To be absolutely exact sir, it is Frogstar World B.''

``But we just left there,'' protested Zaphod, ``we left there and came to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.''

``Yes, sir,'' said the waiter, feeling that he was now into the home stretch and running well, ``the one was constructed on the ruins of the other.''

``Oh,'' said Arthur brightly, ``you mean we've travelled in time but not in space.''

``Listen you semi-evolved simian,'' cut in Zaphod, ``go climb a tree will you?''

Arthur bristled.

``Go bang your heads together four-eyes,'' he advised Zaphod.

``No, no,'' the waiter said to Zaphod, ``your monkey has got it right, sir.''

Arthur stuttered in fury and said nothing apposite, or indeed coherent.

``You jumped forward ... I believe five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years whilst staying in exactly the same place,'' explained the waiter. He smiled. He had a wonderful feeling that he had finally won through against what had seemed to be insuperable odds.

``That's it!'' said Zaphod, ``I got it. I told the computer to send us to the nearest place to eat, that's exactly what it did. Give or take five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years, we never moved. Neat.''

They all agreed this was very neat.

``But who,'' said Zaphod, ``is the cat on the phone?''

``Whatever happened to Marvin?'' said Trillian.

Zaphod clapped his hands to his heads.

``The Paranoid Android! I left him moping about on Frogstar B.''

``When was this?''

``Well, er, five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years ago I suppose,'' said Zaphod, ``Hey, er, hand me the rap-rod, Plate Captain.''

The little waiter's eyebrows wandered about his forehead in confusion.

``I beg your pardon, sir?'' he said.

``The phone, waiter,'' said Zaphod, grabbing it off him. ``Shee, you guys are so unhip it's a wonder your bums don't fall off.''

``Indeed, sir.''

``Hey, Marvin, is that you?'' said Zaphod into the phone, ``How you doing, kid?''

There was a long pause before a thin low voice came up the line.

``I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed,'' it said.

Zaphod cupped his hands over the phone.

``It's Marvin,'' he said.

``Hey, Marvin,'' he said into the phone again, ``we're having a great time. Food, wine, a little personal abuse and the Universe going foom. Where can we find you?''

Again the pause.

``You don't have to pretend to be interested in me you know,'' said Marvin at last, ``I know perfectly well I'm only a menial robot.''

``OK, OK,'' said Zaphod, ``but where are you?''

```Reverse primary thrust, Marvin,' that's what they say to me, `open airlock number three, Marvin. Marvin, can you pick up that piece of paper?' Can I pick up that piece of paper! Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to ...''

``Yeah, yeah,'' sympathized Zaphod hardly at all.

``But I'm quite used to being humiliated,'' droned Marvin, ``I can even go and stick my head in a bucket of water if you like. Would you like me to go and stick my head in a bucket of water? I've got one ready. Wait a minute.''

``Er, hey, Marvin ...'' interrupted Zaphod, but it was too late. Sad little clunks and gurgles came up the line.

``What's he saying?'' asked Trillian.

``Nothing,'' said Zaphod, ``he just phoned up to wash his head at us.''

``There,'' said Marvin, coming back on the line and bubbling a bit, ``I hope that gave satisfaction ...''

``Yeah, yeah,'' said Zaphod, ``now will you please tell us where you are?''

``I'm in the car park,'' said Marvin.

``The car park?'' said Zaphod, ``what are you doing there?''

``Parking cars, what else does one do in a car park?''

``OK, hang in there, we'll be right down.''

In one movement Zaphod leapt to his feet, threw down the phone and wrote ``Hotblack Desiato'' on the bill.

``Come on guys,'' he said, ``Marvin's in the car park. Let's get on down.''

``What's he doing in the car park?'' asked Arthur.

``Parking cars, what else? Dum dum.''

``But what about the End of the Universe? We'll miss the big moment.''

``I've seen it. It's rubbish,'' said Zaphod, ``nothing but a gnab gib.''

``A what?''

``Opposite of a big bang. Come on, let's get zappy.''

Few of the other diners paid them any attention as they weaved their way through the Restaurant to the exit. Their eyes were riveted on the horror of the skies.

``An interesting effect to watch for,'' Max was telling them, ``is in the upper left-hand quadrant of the sky, where if you look very carefully you can see the star system Hastromil boiling away into the ultra-violet. Anyone here from Hastromil?''

There were one or two slightly hesitant cheers from somewhere at the back.

``Well,'' said Max beaming cheerfully at them, ``it's too late to worry about whether you left the gas on now.''


Previous Next Index