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Chapter Thirty-eight

Crowds thronged as close as they could to the giant silver craft, which wasn't very. The immediate perimeter was fenced off and patrolled by the tiny flying service robots. Staked out around that was the army, who had been completely unable to breach that inner perimeter, but were damned if anybody was going to breach them. They in turn were surrounded by a cordon of police, though whether they were there to protect the public from the army or the army from the public, or to guarantee the giant ship's diplomatic immunity and prevent it getting parking tickets was entirely unclear and the subject of much debate.

The inner perimeter fence was now being dismantled. The army stirred uncomfortably, uncertain of how to react to the fact that the reason for their being there seemed as if it was simply going to get up and go.

The giant robot had lurched back aboard the ship at lunchtime, and now it was five o'clock in the afternoon and no further sign had been seen of it. Much had been heard --- more grindings and rumblings from deep within the craft, the music of a million hideous malfunctions; but the sense of tense expectation among the crowd was born of the fact that they tensely expected to be disappointed. This wonderful extraordinary thing had come into their lives, an now it was simply going to go without them.

Two people were particularly aware of this sensation. Arthur and Fenchurch scanned the crowd anxiously, unable to find Ford Prefect in it anywhere, or any sign that he had the slightest intention of being there.

``How reliable is he?'' asked Fenchurch in a sinking voice.

``How reliable?'' said Arthur. He gave a hollow laugh. ``How shallow is the ocean?'' he said. ``How cold is the sun?''

The last parts of the robot's gantry transport were being carried on board, and the few remaining sections of the perimeter fence were now stacked at the bottom of the ramp waiting to follow them. The soldiers on guard round the ramp bristled meaningfully, orders were barked back and forth, hurried conferences were held, but nothing, of course, could be done about any of it.

Hopelessly, and with no clear plan now, Arthur and Fenchurch pushed forward through the crowd, but since the whole crowd was also trying to push forward through the crowd, this got them nowhere.

And within a few minutes more nothing remained outside the ship, every last link of the fence was aboard. A couple of flying fret saws and a spirit level seemed to do one last check around the site, and then screamed in through the giant hatchway themselves.

A few seconds passed.

The sounds of mechanical disarray from within changed in intensity, and slowly, heavily, the huge steel ramp began to lift itself back out of the Harrods Food Halls. The sound that accompanied it was the sound of thousands of tense, excited people being completely ignored.

``Hold it!''

A megaphone barked from a taxi which screeched to a halt on the edge of the milling crowd.

``There has been,'' barked the megaphone, ``a major scientific break-in! Through. Breakthrough,'' it corrected itself. The door flew open and a small man from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse leapt out wearing a white coat.

``Hold it!'' he shouted again, and this time brandished a short squad black rod with lights on it. The lights winked briefly, the ramp paused in its ascent, and then in obedience to the signals from the Thumb (which half the electronic engineers in the galaxy are constantly trying to find fresh ways of jamming, while the other half are constantly trying to find fresh ways of jamming the jamming signals), slowly ground its way downwards again.

Ford Prefect grabbed his megaphone from out of the taxi and started bawling at the crowd through it.

``Make way,'' he shouted, ``make way, please, this is a major scientific breakthrough. You and you, get the equipment from the taxi.''

Completely at random he pointed at Arthur and Fenchurch, who wrestled their way back out of the crowd and clustered urgently round the taxi.

``All right, I want you to clear a passage, please, for some important pieces of scientific equipment,'' boomed Ford. ``Just everybody keep calm. It's all under control, there's nothing to see. It is merely a major scientific breakthrough. Keep calm now. Important scientific equipment. Clear the way.''

Hungry for new excitement, delighted at this sudden reprieve from disappointment, the crowd enthusiastically fell back and started to open up.

Arthur was a little surprised to see what was printed on the boxes of important scientific equipment in the back of the taxi.

``Hang your coat over them,'' he muttered to Fenchurch as he heaved them out to her. Hurriedly he manoeuvred out the large supermarket trolley that was also jammed against the back seat. It clattered to the ground, and together they loaded the boxes into it.

``Clear a path, please,'' shouted Ford again. ``Everything's under proper scientific control.''

``He said you'd pay,'' said the taxi-driver to Arthur, who dug out some notes and paid him. There was the distant sound of police sirens.

``Move along there,'' shouted Ford, ``and no one will get hurt.''

The crowd surged and closed behind them again, as frantically they pushed and hauled the rattling supermarket trolley through the rubble towards the ramp.

``It's all right,'' Ford continued to bellow. ``There's nothing to see, it's all over. None of this is actually happening.''

``Clear the way, please,'' boomed a police megaphone from the back of the crowd. ``There's been a break-in, clear the way.''

``Breakthrough,'' yelled Ford in competition. ``A scientific breakthrough!''

``This is the police! Clear the way!''

``Scientific equipment! Clear the way!''

``Police! Let us through!''

``Walkmen!'' yelled Ford, and pulled half a dozen miniature tape players from his pockets and tossed them into the crowd. The resulting seconds of utter confusion allowed them to get the supermarket trolley to the edge of the ramp, and to haul it up on to the lip of it.

``Hold tight,'' muttered Ford, and released a button on his Electronic Thumb. Beneath them, the huge ramp juddered and began slowly to heave its way upwards.

``Ok, kids,'' he said as the milling crowd dropped away beneath them and they started to lurch their way along the tilting ramp into the bowels of the ship, ``looks like we're on our way.''


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