The early morning's thinnest sliver of light appeared silently.
Several billion trillion tons of superhot exploding hydrogen nuclei rose slowly above the horizon and managed to look small, cold and slightly damp.
There is a moment in every dawn when light floats, there is the possibility of magic. Creation holds its breath.
The moment passed as it regularly did on Squornshellous Zeta, without incident.
The mist clung to the surface of the marshes. The swamp trees were grey with it, the tall reeds indistinct. It hung motionless like held breath.
There was silence.
The sun struggled feebly with the mist, tried to impart a little warmth here, shed a little light there, but clearly today was going to be just another long haul across the sky.
Very often on Squornshellous Zeta, whole days would go on like this, and this was indeed going to be one of them.
Fourteen hours later the sun sank hopelessly beneath the opposite horizon with a sense of totally wasted effort.
And a few hours later it reappeared, squared its shoulders and started on up the sky again.
This time, however, something was happening. A mattress had just met a robot.
``Hello, robot,'' said the mattress.
``Bleah,'' said the robot and continued what it was doing, which was walking round very slowly in a very tiny circle.
``Happy?'' said the mattress.
The robot stopped and looked at the mattress. It looked at it quizzically. It was clearly a very stupid mattress. It looked back at him with wide eyes.
After what it had calculated to ten significant decimal places as being the precise length of pause most likely to convey a general contempt for all things mattressy, the robot continued to walk round in tight circles.
``We could have a conversation,'' said the mattress, ``would you like that?''
It was a large mattress, and probably one of quite high quality. Very few things actually get manufactured these days, because in an infinitely large Universe such as, for instance, the one in which we live, most things one could possibly imagine, and a lot of things one would rather not, grow somewhere. A forest was discovered recently in which most of the trees grew ratchet screwdrivers as fruit. The life cycle of ratchet screwdriver fruit it quite interesting. Once picked it needs a dark dusty drawer in which it can lie undisturbed for years. Then one night it suddenly hatches, discards its outer skin which crumbles into dust, and emerges as a totally unidentifiable little metal object with flanges at both ends and a sort of ridge and a sort of hole for a screw. This, when found, will get thrown away. No one knows what it is supposed to gain from this. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, is presumably working on it.
No one really knows what mattresses are meant to gain from their lives either. They are large, friendly, pocket-sprung creatures which live quiet private lives in the marshes of Squornshellous Zeta. Many of them get caught, slaughtered, dried out, shipped out and slept on. None of them seem to mind and all of them are called Zem.
``No,'' said Marvin.
``My name,'' said the mattress, ``is Zem. We could discuss the weather a little.''
Marvin paused again in his weary circular plod.
``The dew,'' he observed, ``has clearly fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning.''
He resumed his walk, as if inspired by this conversational outburst to fresh heights of gloom and despondency. He plodded tenaciously. If he had had teeth he would have gritted them at this point. He hadn't. He didn't. The mere plod said it all.
The mattress flolloped around. This is a thing that only live mattresses in swamps are able to do, which is why the word is not in more common usage. It flolloped in a sympathetic sort of way, moving a fairish body of water as it did so. It blew a few bubbles up through the water engagingly. Its blue and white stripes glistened briefly in a sudden feeble ray of sun that had unexpectedly made it through the mist, causing the creature to bask momentarily.
``You have something on your mind, I think,'' said the mattress floopily.
``More than you can possibly imagine,'' dreaded Marvin. ``My capacity for mental activity of all kinds is as boundless as the infinite reaches of space itself. Except of course for my capacity for happiness.''
Stomp, stomp, he went.
``My capacity for happiness,'' he added, ``you could fit into a matchbox without taking out the matches first.''
The mattress globbered. This is the noise made by a live, swamp-dwelling mattress that is deeply moved by a story of personal tragedy. The word can also, according to The Ultra-Complete Maximegalon Dictionary of Every Language Ever, mean the noise made by the Lord High Sanvalvwag of Hollop on discovering that he has forgotten his wife's birthday for the second year running. Since there was only ever one Lord High Sanvalvwag of Hollop, and he never married, the word is only ever used in a negative or speculative sense, and there is an ever-increasing body of opinion which holds that The Ultra-Complete Maximegalon Dictionary is not worth the fleet of lorries it takes to cart its microstored edition around in. Strangely enough, the dictionary omits the word ``floopily'', which simply means ``in the manner of something which is floopy''.
The mattress globbered again.
``I sense a deep dejection in your diodes,'' it vollued (for the meaning of the word ``vollue'', buy a copy of Squornshellous Swamptalk at any remaindered bookshop, or alternatively buy The Ultra-Complete Maximegalon Dictionary, as the University will be very glad to get it off their hands and regain some valuable parking lots), ``and it saddens me. You should be more mattresslike. We live quiet retired lives in the swamp, where we are content to flollop and vollue and regard the wetness in a fairly floopy manner. Some of us are killed, but all of us are called Zem, so we never know which and globbering is thus kept to a minimum. Why are you walking in circles?''
``Because my leg is stuck,'' said Marvin simply.
``It seems to me,'' said the mattress eyeing it compassionately, ``that it is a pretty poor sort of leg.''
``You are right,'' said Marvin, ``it is.''
``Voon,'' said the mattress.
``I expect so,'' said Marvin, ``and I also expect that you find the idea of a robot with an artificial leg pretty amusing. You should tell your friends Zem and Zem when you see them later; they'll laugh, if I know them, which I don't of course --- except insofar as I know all organic life forms, which is much better than I would wish to. Ha, but my life is but a box of wormgears.''
He stomped around again in his tiny circle, around his thin steel peg-leg which revolved in the mud but seemed otherwise stuck.
``But why do you just keep walking round and round?'' said the mattress.
``Just to make the point,'' said Marvin, and continued, round and round.
``Consider it made, my dear friend,'' flurbled the mattress, ``consider it made.''
``Just another million years,'' said Marvin, ``just another quick million. Then I might try it backwards. Just for the variety, you understand.''
The mattress could feel deep in his innermost spring pockets that the robot dearly wished to be asked how long he had been trudging in this futile and fruitless manner, and with another quiet flurble he did so.
``Oh, just over the one-point-five-million mark, just over,'' said Marvin airily. ``Ask me if I ever get bored, go on, ask me.''
The mattress did.
Marvin ignored the question, he merely trudged with added emphasis.
``I gave a speech once,'' he said suddenly, and apparently unconnectedly. ``You may not instantly see why I bring the subject up, but that is because my mind works so phenomenally fast, and I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.''
``Er, five,'' said the mattress.
``Wrong,'' said Marvin. ``You see?''
The mattress was much impressed by this and realized that it was in the presence of a not unremarkable mind. It willomied along its entire length, sending excited little ripples through its shallow algae-covered pool.
``Tell me,'' it urged, ``of the speech you once made, I long to hear it.''
``It was received very badly,'' said Marvin, ``for a variety of reasons. I delivered it,'' he added, pausing to make an awkward humping sort of gesture with his not-exactly-good arm, but his arm which was better than the other one which was dishearteningly welded to his left side, ``over there, about a mile distance.''
He was pointing as well as he could manage, and he obviously wanted to make it totally clear that this was as well as he could manage, through the mist, over the reeds, to a part of the marsh which looked exactly the same as every other part of the marsh.
``There,'' he repeated. ``I was somewhat of a celebrity at the time.''
Excitement gripped the mattress. It had never heard of speeches being delivered on Squornshellous Zeta, and certainly not by celebrities. Water spattered off it as a thrill glurried across its back.
It did something which mattresses very rarely bother to do. Summoning every bit of its strength, it reared its oblong body, heaved it up into the air and held it quivering there for a few seconds whilst it peered through the mist over the reeds at the part of the marsh which Marvin had indicated, observing, without disappointment, that it was exactly the same as every other part of the marsh. The effort was too much, and it flodged back into its pool, deluging Marvin with smelly mud, moss and weeds.
``I was a celebrity,'' droned the robot sadly, ``for a short while on account of my miraculous and bitterly resented escape from a fate almost as good as death in the heart of a blazing sun. You can guess from my condition,'' he added, ``how narrow my escape was. I was rescued by a scrap-metal merchant, imagine that. Here I am, brain the size of ... never mind.''
He trudged savagely for a few seconds.
``He it was who fixed me up with this leg. Hateful, isn't it? He sold me to a Mind Zoo. I was the star exhibit. I had to sit on a box and tell my story whilst people told me to cheer up and think positive. `Give us a grin, little robot,' they would shout at me, `give us a little chuckle.' I would explain to them that to get my face to grin wold take a good couple of hours in a workshop with a wrench, and that went down very well.''
``The speech,'' urged the mattress. ``I long to hear of the speech you gave in the marshes.''
``There was a bridge built across the marshes. A cyberstructured hyperbridge, hundreds of miles in length, to carry ion-buggies and freighters over the swamp.''
``A bridge?'' quirruled the mattress. ``Here in the swamp?''
``A bridge,'' confirmed Marvin, ``here in the swamp. It was going to revitalize the economy of the Squornshellous System. They spent the entire economy of the Squornshellous System building it. They asked me to open it. Poor fools.''
It began to rain a little, a fine spray slid through the mist.
``I stood on the platform. For hundreds of miles in front of me, and hundreds of miles behind me, the bridge stretched.''
``Did it glitter?'' enthused the mattress.
``Did it span the miles majestically?''
``It spanned the miles majestically.''
``Did it stretch like a silver thread far out into the invisible mist?''
``Yes,'' said Marvin. ``Do you want to hear this story?''
``I want to hear your speech,'' said the mattress.
``This is what I said. I said, `I would like to say that it is a very great pleasure, honour and privilege for me to open this bridge, but I can't because my lying circuits are all out of commission. I hate and despise you all. I now declare this hapless cyberstructure open to the unthinkable abuse of all who wantonly cross her.' And I plugged myself into the opening circuits.''
Marvin paused, remembering the moment.
The mattress flurred and glurried. It flolloped, gupped and willomied, doing this last in a particularly floopy way.
``Voon,'' it wurfed at last. ``And it was a magnificent occasion?''
``Reasonably magnificent. The entire thousand-mile-long bridge spontaneously folded up its glittering spans and sank weeping into the mire, taking everybody with it.''
There was a sad and terrible pause at this point in the conversation during which a hundred thousand people seemed unexpectedly to say ``wop'' and a team of white robots descended from the sky like dandelion seeds drifting on the wind in tight military formation. For a sudden violent moment they were all there, in the swamp, wrenching Marvin's false leg off, and then they were gone again in their ship, which said ``foop''.
``You see the sort of thing I have to contend with?'' said Marvin to the gobbering mattress.
Suddenly, a moment later, the robots were back again for another violent incident, and this time when they left, the mattress was alone in the swamp. He flolloped around in astonishment and alarm. He almost lurgled in fear. He reared himself to see over the reeds, but there was nothing to see, just more reeds. He listened, but there was no sound on the wind beyond the now familiar sound of half-crazed etymologists calling distantly to each other across the sullen mire.