All over the building, alarms were erupting into their usual frenzy of excitement. He dived for cover behind the usual storage cabinets, glanced around to check that he was unseen, and started rapidly to fish around inside his satchel for the usual things he needed.
His ankle, unusually, was hurting like hell.
The ground was not only three inches further from the ventilation shaft than he remembered, it was also on a different planet than he remembered, but it was the three inches that had caught him by surprise. The offices of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy were quite often shifted at very short notice to another planet, for reasons of local climate, local hostility, power bills or tax, but they were always reconstructed exactly the same way, almost to the very molecule. For many of the company's employees, the layout of their offices represented the only constant they knew in a severely distorted personal universe.
Something, though, was odd.
This was not in itself surprising, thought Ford as he pulled out his lightweight throwing towel. Virtually everything in his life was, to a greater or lesser extent, odd. It was just that this was odd in a slightly different way than he was used to things being odd, which was, well, strange. He couldn't quite get it into focus immediately.
He got out his No.3 gauge prising tool. The alarms were going in the same old way that he knew well. There was a kind of music to them that he could almost hum along to. That was all very familiar. The world outside had been a new one on Ford. He had not been to Saquo-Pilia Hensha before, and he had liked it. It had a kind of carnival atmosphere to it.
He took from his satchel a toy bow and arrow which he had bought in a street market.
He had discovered that the reason for the carnival atmosphere on Saquo-Pilia Hensha was that the local people were celebrating the annual feast of the Assumption of St Antwelm. St Antwelm had been, during his lifetime, a great and popular king who had made a great and popular assumption. What King Antwelm had assumed was that what everybody wanted, all other things being equal, was to be happy and enjoy themselves and have the best possible time together. On his death he had willed his entire personal fortune to financing an annual festival to remind everyone of this, with lots of good food and dancing and very silly games like Hunt the Wocket. His Assumption had been such a brilliantly good one that he was made into a saint for it. Not only that, but all the people who had previously been made saints for doing things like being stoned to death in a thoroughly miserable way or living upside down in barrels of dung were instantly demoted and were now thought to be rather embarrassing.
The familiar H-shaped building of the Hitch Hiker's Guide offices rose above the outskirts of the city, and Ford Prefect had broken into it in the familiar way. He always entered via the ventilation system rather than the main lobby because the main lobby was patrolled by robots whose job it was to quiz incoming employees about their expense accounts. Ford Prefect's expense accounts were notoriously complex and difficult affairs and he had found, on the whole, that the lobby robots were ill-equipped to understand the arguments he wished to put forward in relation to them. He preferred, therefore, to make his entrance by another route.
This meant setting off nearly every alarm in the building, but not the one in the accounts department, which was the way that Ford preferred it.
He hunkered down behind the storage cabinet, he licked the rubber suction cup of the toy arrow, and then fitted it to the string of the bow.
Within about thirty seconds a security robot the size of a small melon came flying down the corridor at about waist height, scanning left and right for anything unusual as it did so.
With impeccable timing Ford shot the toy arrow across its path. The arrow flew across the corridor and stuck, wobbling, on the opposite wall. As it flew, the robot's sensors locked on to it instantly and the robot twisted through ninety degrees to follow it, see what the hell it was and where it was going.
This bought Ford one precious second, during which the robot was looking in the opposite direction from him. He hurled the towel over the flying robot and caught it.
Because of the various sensory protuberances with which the robot was festooned, it couldn't manoeuvre inside the towel, and it just twitched back and forth without being able to turn and face its captor.
Ford hauled it quickly towards him and pinned it down to the ground. It was beginning to whine pitifully. With one swift and practised movement, Ford reached under the towel with his No.3 gauge prising tool and flipped off the small plastic panel on top of the robot which gave access to its logic circuits.
Now logic is a wonderful thing but it has, as the processes of evolution discovered, certain drawbacks.
Anything that thinks logically can be fooled by something else which thinks at least as logically as it does. The easiest way to fool a completely logical robot is to feed it the same stimulus sequence over and over again so it gets locked in a loop. This was best demonstrated by the famous Herring Sandwich experiments conducted millennia ago at MISPWOSO (The MaxiMegalon Institute of Slowly and Painfully Working Out the Surprisingly Obvious).
A robot was programmed to believe that it liked herring sandwiches. This was actually the most difficult part of the whole experiment. Once the robot had been programmed to believe that it liked herring sandwiches, a herring sandwich was placed in front of it. Whereupon the robot thought to itself, `Ah! A herring sandwich! I like herring sandwiches.'
It would then bend over and scoop up the herring sandwich in its herring sandwich scoop, and then straighten up again. Unfortunately for the robot, it was fashioned in such a way that the action of straightening up caused the herring sandwich to slip straight back off its herring sandwich scoop and fall on to the floor in front of the robot. Whereupon the robot thought to itself, `Ah! A herring sandwich..., etc., and repeated the same action over and over and over again. The only thing that prevented the herring sandwich from getting bored with the whole damn business and crawling off in search of other ways of passing the time was that the herring sandwich, being just a bit of dead fish between a couple of slices of bread, was marginally less alert to what was going on than was the robot.
The scientists at the Institute thus discovered the driving force behind all change, development and innovation in life, which was this: herring sandwiches. They published a paper to this effect, which was widely criticised as being extremely stupid. They checked their figures and realised that what they had actually discovered was `boredom', or rather, the practical function of boredom. In a fever of excitement they then went on to discover other emotions, Like `irritability', `depression', `reluctance', `ickiness' and so on. The next big breakthrough came when they stopped using herring sandwiches, whereupon a whole welter of new emotions became suddenly available to them for study, such as `relief', `joy', `friskiness', `appetite', `satisfaction', and most important of all, the desire for `happiness'.
This was the biggest breakthrough of all.
Vast wodges of complex computer code governing robot behaviour in all possible contingencies could be replaced very simply. All that robots needed was the capacity to be either bored or happy, and a few conditions that needed to be satisfied in order to bring those states about. They would then work the rest out for themselves.
The robot which Ford had got trapped under his towel was not, at the moment a happy robot. It was happy when it could move about. It was happy when it could see other things. It was particularly happy when it could see other things moving about, particularly if the other things were moving about doing things they shouldn't do because it could then, with considerable delight, report them.
Ford would soon fix that.
He squatted over the robot and held it between his knees. The towel was still covering all of its sensory mechanisms, but Ford had now got its logic circuits exposed. The robot was whirring grungily and pettishly, but it could only fidget, it couldn't actually move. Using the prising tool, Ford eased a small chip out from its socket. As soon as it came out, the robot went quiet and just sat there in a coma.
The chip Ford had taken out was the one which contained the instructions for all the conditions that had to be fulfilled in order for the robot to feel happy. The robot would be happy when a tiny electrical charge from a point just to the left of the chip reached another point just to the right of the chip. The chip determined whether the charge got there or not.
Ford pulled out a small length of wire that had been threaded into the towel. He dug one end of it into the top left hole of the chip socket and the other into the bottom right hole.
That was all it took. Now the robot would be happy whatever happened.
Ford quickly stood up and whisked the towel away. The robot rose ecstatically into the air, pursuing a kind of wriggly path.
It turned and saw Ford.
`Mr Prefect, sir! I'm so happy to see you!'
`Good to see you, little fella,' said Ford.
The robot rapidly reported back to its central control that everything was now for the best in this best of all possible worlds, the alarms rapidly quelled themselves, and life returned to normal.
At least, almost to normal.
There was something odd about the place.
The little robot was gurgling with electric delight. Ford hurried on down the corridor, letting the thing bob along in his wake telling him how delicious everything was, and how happy it was to be able to tell him that.
Ford, however, was not happy.
He passed faces of people he didn't know. They didn't look like his sort of people. They were too well groomed. Their eyes were too dead. Every time he thought he saw someone he recognised in the distance, and hurried along to say hello, it would turn out to be someone else, with an altogether neater hairstyle and a much more thrusting, purposeful look than, well, than anybody Ford knew.
A staircase had been moved a few inches to the left. A ceiling had been lowered slightly. A Lobby had been remodelled. All these things were not worrying in themselves, though they were a little disorienting. The thing that was worrying was the decor. It used to be brash and glitzy. Expensive --- because the Guide sold so well through the civilised and post-civilised Galaxy --- but expensive and fun. Wild games machines lined the corridors. Insanely painted grand pianos hung from ceilings, vicious sea creatures from the planet Viv reared up out of pools in tree-filled atria, robot butlers in stupid shirts roamed the corridors seeking whose hands they might press frothing drinks into. People used to have pet vastdragons on leads and pterospondes on perches in their offices. People knew how to have a good time, and if they didn't there were courses they could sign up for which would put that right.
There was none of that now.
Somebody had been through the place doing some iniquitous kind of taste job on it.
Ford turned sharply into a small alcove, cupped his hand and yanked the flying robot in with him. He squatted down and peered at the burbling cybernaut.
`What's been happening here?' he demanded.
`Oh just the nicest things, sir, just the nicest possible things. Can I sit on your lap, please?'
`No,' said Ford, brushing the thing away. It was overjoyed to be spurned in this way and started to bob and burble and swoon. Ford grabbed it again and stuck it firmly in the air a foot in front of his face. It tried to stay where it was put but couldn't help quivering slightly.
`Something's changed, hasn't it?' Ford hissed.
`Oh yes,' squealed the little robot, `in the most fabulous and wonderful way. I feel so good about it.'
`Well what was it like before, then?'
`But you like the way it's changed?' demanded Ford.
`I like everything,' moaned the robot. `Especially when you shout at me like that. Do it again, please.'
`Just tell me what's happened!'
`Oh thank you, thank you!'
`OK, OK,' panted the robot. `The Guide has been taken over. There's a new management. It's all so gorgeous I could just melt. The old management was also fabulous of course, though I'm not sure if I thought so at the time.'
`That was before you had a bit of wire stuck in your head.'
`How true. How wonderfully true. How wonderfully, bubblingly, frothingly, burstingly true. What a truly ecstasy-inducingly correct observation.'
`What's happened?' insisted Ford. `Who is this new management? When did they take over? I... oh, never mind,' he added, as the little robot started to gibbet with uncontrollable joy and rub itself against his knee. `I'll go and find out for myself.'
Ford hurled himself at the door of the editor-in-chief's office, tucked himself into a tight ball as the frame splintered and gave way, rolled rapidly across the floor to where the drinks trolley laden with some of the Galaxy's most potent and expensive beverages habitually stood, seized hold of the trolley and, using it to give himself cover, trundled it and himself across the main exposed part of the office floor to where the valuable and extremely rude statue of Leda and the Octopus stood, and took shelter behind it. Meanwhile the little security robot, entering at chest height, was suicidally delighted to draw gunfire away from Ford.
That, at least, was the plan, and a necessary one. The current editor-in-chief, Stagyar-zil-Doggo, was a dangerously unbalanced man who took a homicidal view of contributing staff turning up in his office without pages of fresh, proofed copy, and had a battery of laser guided guns linked to special scanning devices in the door frame to deter anybody who was merely bringing extremely good reasons why they hadn't written any. Thus was a high level of output maintained.
Unfortunately the drinks trolley wasn't there.
Ford hurled himself desperately sideways and somersaulted towards the statue of Leda and the Octopus, which also wasn't there. He rolled and hurtled around the room in a kind of random panic, tripped, span, hit the window, which fortunately was built to withstand rocket attacks, rebounded, and fell in a bruised and winded heap behind a smart grey crushed leather sofa, which hadn't been there before.
After a few seconds he slowly peeked up above the top of the sofa. As well as there being no drinks trolley and no Leda and the Octopus, there had also been a startling absence of gunfire. He frowned. This was all utterly wrong.
`Mr Prefect, I assume,' said a voice.
The voice came from a smooth-faced individual behind a large ceramo-teak-bonded desk. Stagyar-zil-Doggo may well have been a hell of an individual, but no one, for a whole variety of reasons, would ever have called him smooth-faced. This was not Stagyar-zil-Doggo.
`I assume from the manner of your entrance that you do not have new material for the, er, Guide, at the moment,' said the smooth-faced individual. He was sitting with his elbows resting on the table and holding his fingertips together in a manner which, inexplicably, has never been made a capital offence.
`I've been busy,' said Ford, rather weakly. He staggered to his feet, brushing himself down. Then he thought, what the hell was he saying things weakly for? He had to get on top of this situation. He had to find out who the hell this person was, and he suddenly thought of a way of doing it.
`Who the hell are you?, he demanded.
`I am your new editor-in-chief. That is, if we decide to retain your services. My name is Vann Harl.' He didn't put his hand out. He just added, `What have you done to that security robot?'
The little robot was rolling very, very slowly round the ceiling and moaning quietly to itself.
`I've made it very happy,' snapped Ford. `It's a kind of mission I have. Where's Stagyar? More to the point, where's his drinks trolley?'
`Mr zil-Doggo is no longer with this organisation. His drinks trolley is, I imagine, helping to console him for this fact.'
`Organisation?' yelled Ford. `Organisation? What a bloody stupid word for a set-up like this!'
`Precisely our sentiments. Under-structured, over-resourced, under-managed, over-inebriated. And that,' said Harl, `was just the editor.'
`I'll do the jokes,' snarled Ford.
`No,' said Harl. `You will do the restaurant column.'
He tossed a piece of plastic on to the desk in front of him. Ford did not move to pick it up.
`You what?' said Ford.
`No. Me Harl. You Prefect. You do restaurant column. Me editor. Me sit here tell you you do restaurant column. You get?'
`Restaurant column?' said Ford, too bewildered to be really angry yet.
`Siddown, Prefect,' said Harl. He swung round in his swivel chair, got to his feet, and stood staring out at the tiny specks enjoying the carnival twenty-three stories below.
`Time to get this business on its feet, Prefect,' he snapped.
`We at InfiniDim Enterprises are...'
`You at what?'
`InfiniDim Enterprises. We have bought out the Guide.'
`We spent millions on that name, Prefect. Start liking it or start packing.'
Ford shrugged. He had nothing to pack.
`The Galaxy is changing,' said Harl. `We've got to change with it. Go with the market. The market is moving up. New aspirations. New technology. The future is...'
`Don't tell me about the future,' said Ford. `I've been all over the future. Spend half my time there. It' s the same as anywhere else. Anywhen else. Whatever. Just the same old stuff in faster cars and smellier air.'
`That's one future,' said Harl. `That's your future, if you accept it. you've got to learn to think multi-dimensionally. There are limitless futures stretching out in every direction from this moment --- and from this moment and from this. Billions of them, bifurcating every instant! Every possible position of every possible electron balloons out into billions of probabilities! Billions and billions of shining, gleaming futures! you know what that means?'
`You're dribbling down your chin.'
`Billions and billions of markets!'
`I see,' said Ford. `So you sell billions and billions of Guides.'
`No,' said Harl, reaching for his handkerchief and not finding one. `Excuse me,' he said, `but this gets me so excited.' Ford handed him his towel.
`The reason we don't sell billions and billions of Guides,' continued Harl, after wiping his mouth, `is the expense. What we do is we sell one Guide billions and billions of times. We exploit the multidimensional nature of the Universe to cut down on manufacturing costs. And we don't sell to penniless hitch hikers. What a stupid notion that was! Find the one section of the market that, more or less by definition, doesn't have any money, and try and sell to it. No. We sell to the affluent business traveller and his vacationing wife in a billion, billion different futures . This is the most radical, dynamic and thrusting business venture in the entire multidimensional infinity of space/time/probability ever.'
`And you want me to be its restaurant critic,' said Ford.
`We would value your input.'
`Kill!' shouted Ford. He shouted it at his towel.
The towel leapt up out of Harl's hands.
This was not because it had any motive force of its own, but because Harl was so startled at the idea that it might. The next thing that startled him was the sight of Ford Prefect hurtling across the desk at him fists first. In fact Ford was just lunging for the credit card, but you don't get to occupy the sort of position that Harl occupied in the sort of organisation in which Harl occupied it without developing a healthily paranoid view of life. He took the sensible precaution of hurling himself backwards, and striking his head a sharp blow on the rocket-proof glass, then subsided into a series of worrying and highly personal dreams.
Ford lay on the desk, surprised at how swimmingly everything had gone. He glanced quickly at the piece of plastic he now held in his hand --- it was a Dine-O-Charge credit card with his name already embossed on it, and an expiry date two years from now, and was possibly the single most exciting thing Ford had ever seen in his life --- then he clambered over the desk to see to Harl.
He was breathing fairly easily. It occurred to Ford that he might breathe more easily yet without the weight of his wallet bearing down on his chest, so he slipped it out of Harl's breast pocket and flipped through it. Fair amount of cash. Credit tokens. Ultragolf club membership. Other club memberships. Photos of someone's wife and family --- presumably Harl's, but it was hard to be sure these days. Busy executives often didn't have time for a full-time wife and family and would just rent them for weekends.
He couldn't believe what he'd just found.
He slowly drew out from the wallet a single and insanely exciting piece of plastic that was nestling amongst a bunch of receipts.
It wasn't insanely exciting to look at. It was rather dull in fact. It was smaller and a little thicker than a credit card and semi-transparent. If you held it up to the light you could see a lot of holographically encoded information and images buried pseudo-inches deep beneath its surface .
It was an Ident-i-Eeze, and was a very naughty and silly thing for Harl to have lying around in his wallet, though it was perfectly understandable. There were so many different ways in which you were required to provide absolute proof of your identity these days that life could easily become extremely tiresome just from that factor alone, never mind the deeper existential problems of trying to function as a coherent consciousness in an epistemologically ambiguous physical universe. Just look at cash point machines, for instance. Queues of people standing around waiting to have their fingerprints read, their retinas scanned, bits of skin scraped from the nape of the neck and undergoing instant (or nearly instant --- a good six or seven seconds in tedious reality) genetic analysis, then having to answer trick questions about members of their family they didn't even remember they had, and about their recorded preferences for tablecloth colours. And that was just to get a bit of spare cash for the weekend. If you were trying to raise a loan for a jetcar, sign a missile treaty or pay an entire restaurant bill things could get really trying.
Hence the Ident-i-Eeze. This encoded every single piece of information about you, your body and your life into one all- purpose machine-readable card that you could then carry around in your wallet, and therefore represented technology's greatest triumph to date over both itself and plain common sense.
Ford pocketed it. A remarkably good idea had just occurred to him. He wondered how long Harl would remain unconscious.
`Hey!' he shouted to the little melon-sized robot still slobbering with euphoria up on the ceiling. `You want to stay happy?'
The robot gurgled that it did.
`Then stick with me and do everything I tell you without fail.'
The robot said that it was quite happy where it was up on the ceiling thank you very much. It had never realised before how much sheer titillation there was to be got from a good ceiling and it wanted to explore its feelings about ceilings in greater depth.
`You stay there,' said Ford, `and you'll soon be recaptured and have your conditional chip replaced. You want to stay happy, come now.'
The robot let out a long heartfelt sigh of impassioned tristesse and sank reluctantly away from the ceiling.
`Listen,' said Ford, `can you keep the rest of the security system happy for a few minutes?'
`One of the joys of true happiness,' trilled the robot, `is sharing. I brim, I froth, I overflow with...'
`OK,' said Ford. `Just spread a little happiness around the security network. Don't give it any information. Just make it feel good so it doesn't feel the need to ask for any.'
He picked up his towel and ran cheerfully for the door. Life had been a little dull of late. It showed every sign now of becoming extremely froody.