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Chapter Six

It seemed to Arthur as if the whole sky suddenly just stood aside and let them through.

It seemed to him that the atoms of his brain and the atoms of the cosmos were streaming through each other.

It seemed to him that he was blown on the wind of the Universe, and that the wind was him.

It seemed to him that he was one of the thoughts of the Universe and that the Universe was a thought of his.

It seemed to the people at Lord's Cricket Ground that another North London restaurant had just come and gone as they so often do, and that this was Somebody Else's Problem.

``What happened?'' whispered Arthur in considerable awe.

``We took off,'' said Slartibartfast.

Arthur lay in startled stillness on the acceleration couch. He wasn't certain whether he had just got space-sickness or religion.

``Nice mover,'' said Ford in an unsuccessful attempt to disguise the degree to which he had been impressed by what Slartibartfast's ship had just done, ``shame about the decor.''

For a moment or two the old man didn't reply. He was staring at the instruments with the air of one who is trying to convert fahrenheit to centigrade in his head whilst his house is burning down. Then his brow cleared and he stared for a moment at the wide panoramic screen in front of him, which displayed a bewildering complexity of stars streaming like silver threads around them.

His lips moved as if he was trying to spell something. Suddenly his eyes darted in alarm back to his instruments, but then his expression merely subsided into a steady frown. He looked back up at the screen. He felt his own pulse. His frown deepened for a moment, then he relaxed.

``It's a mistake to try and understand mathematics,'' he said, ``they only worry me. What did you say?''

``Decor,'' said Ford. ``Pity about it.''

``Deep in the fundamental heart of mind and Universe,'' said Slartibartfast, ``there is a reason.''

Ford glanced sharply around. He clearly thought this was taking an optimistic view of things.

The interior of the flight deck was dark green, dark red, dark brown, cramped and moodily lit. Inexplicably, the resemblance to a small Italian bistro had failed to end at the hatchway. Small pools of light picked out pot plants, glazed tiles and all sorts of little unidentifiable brass things.

Rafia-wrapped bottles lurked hideously in the shadows.

The instruments which had occupied Slartibartfast's attention seemed to be mounted in the bottom of bottles which were set in concrete.

Ford reached out and touched it.

Fake concrete. Plastic. Fake bottles set in fake concrete.

The fundamental heart of mind and Universe can take a running jump, he thought to himself, this is rubbish. On the other hand, it could not be denied that the way the ship had moved made the Heart of Gold seem like an electric pram.

He swung himself off the couch. He brushed himself down. He looked at Arthur who was singing quietly to himself. He looked at the screen and recognized nothing. He looked at Slartibartfast.

``How far did we just travel?'' he said.

``About ...'' said Slartibartfast, ``about two thirds of the way across the Galactic disc, I would say, roughly. Yes, roughly two thirds, I think.''

``It's a strange thing,'' said Arthur quietly, ``that the further and faster one travels across the Universe, the more one's position in it seems to be largely immaterial, and one is filled with a profound, or rather emptied of a ...''

``Yes, very strange,'' said Ford. ``Where are we going?''

``We are going,'' said Slartibartfast, ``to confront an ancient nightmare of the Universe.''

``And where are you going to drop us off?''

``I will need your help.''

``Tough. Look, there's somewhere you can take us where we can have fun, I'm trying to think of it, we can get drunk and maybe listen to some extremely evil music. Hold on, I'll look it up.'' He dug out his copy of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and tipped through those parts of the index primarily concerned with sex and drugs and rock and roll.

``A curse has arisen from the mists of time,'' said Slartibartfast.

``Yes, I expect so,'' said Ford. ``Hey,'' he said, lighting accidentally on one particular reference entry, ``Eccentrica Gallumbits, did you ever meet her? The triple-breasted whore of Eroticon Six. Some people say her erogenous zones start some four miles from her actual body. Me, I disagree, I say five.''

``A curse,'' said Slartibartfast, ``which will engulf the Galaxy in fire and destruction, and possibly bring the Universe to a premature doom. I mean it,'' he added.

``Sounds like a bad time,'' said Ford, ``with look I'll be drunk enough not to notice. Here,'' he said, stabbing his finger at the screen of the Guide, ``would be a really wicked place to go, and I think we should. What do you say, Arthur? Stop mumbling mantras and pay attention. There's important stuff you're missing here.''

Arthur pushed himself up from his couch and shook his head.

``Where are we going?'' he said.

``To confront an ancient night-''

``Can it,'' said Ford. ``Arthur, we are going out into the Galaxy to have some fun. Is that an idea you can cope with?''

``What's Slartibartfast looking so anxious about?'' said Arthur.

``Nothing,'' said Ford.

``Doom,'' said Slartibartfast. ``Come,'' he added, with sudden authority, ``there is much I must show and tell you.''

He walked towards a green wrought-iron spiral staircase set incomprehensibly in the middle of the flight deck and started to ascend. Arthur, with a frown, followed.

Ford slung the Guide sullenly back into his satchel.

``My doctor says that I have a malformed public-duty gland and a natural deficiency in moral fibre,'' he muttered to himself, ``and that I am therefore excused from saving Universes.''

Nevertheless, he stomped up the stairs behind them.

What they found upstairs was just stupid, or so it seemed, and Ford shook his head, buried his face in his hands and slumped against a pot plant, crushing it against the wall.

``The central computational area,'' said Slartibartfast unperturbed, ``this is where every calculation affecting the ship in any way is performed. Yes I know what it looks like, but it is in fact a complex four-dimensional topographical map of a series of highly complex mathematical functions.''

``It looks like a joke,'' said Arthur.

``I know what it looks like,'' said Slartibartfast, and went into it. As he did so, Arthur had a sudden vague flash of what it might mean, but he refused to believe it. The Universe could not possibly work like that, he thought, cannot possibly. That, he thought to himself, would be as absurd as ... he terminated that line of thinking. Most of the really absurd things he could think of had already happened.

And this was one of them.

It was a large glass cage, or box --- in fact a room.

In it was a table, a long one. Around it were gathered about a dozen chairs, of the bentwood style. On it was a tablecloth --- a grubby, red and white check tablecloth, scarred with the occasional cigarette burn, each, presumably, at a precise calculated mathematical position.

And on the tablecloth sat some half-eaten Italian meals, hedged about with half-eaten breadsticks and half-drunk glasses of wine, and toyed with listlessly by robots.

It was all completely artificial. The robot customers were attended by a robot waiter, a robot wine waiter and a robot maetre d'. The furniture was artificial, the tablecloth artificial, and each particular piece of food was clearly capable of exhibiting all the mechanical characteristics of, say, a pollo sorpreso, without actually being one.

And all participated in a little dance together --- a complex routine involving the manipulation of menus, bill pads, wallets, cheque books, credit cards, watches, pencils and paper napkins, which seemed to be hovering constantly on the edge of violence, but never actually getting anywhere.

Slartibartfast hurried in, and then appeared to pass the time of day quite idly with the maetre d', whilst one of the customer robots, an autorory, slid slowly under the table, mentioning what he intended to do to some guy over some girl.

Slartibartfast took over the seat which had been thus vacated and passed a shrewd eye over the menu. The tempo of the routine round the table seemed somehow imperceptibly to quicken. Arguments broke out, people attempted to prove things on napkins. They waved fiercely at each other, and attempted to examine each other's pieces of chicken. The waiter's hand began to move on the bill pad more quickly than a human hand could manage, and then more quickly than a human eye could follow. The pace accelerated. Soon, an extraordinary and insistent politeness overwhelmed the group, and seconds later it seemed that a moment of consensus was suddenly achieved. A new vibration thrilled through the ship.

Slartibartfast emerged from the glass room.

``Bistromathics,'' he said. ``The most powerful computational force known to parascience. Come to the Room of Informational Illusions.''

He swept past and carried them bewildered in his wake.


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