Well, not exactly steal.
If his accounts supervisor didn't start to hyperventilate and put out a seal-all-exits security alert when Ford handed in his expenses claim then Ford felt he wasn't doing his job properly. But actually stealing was another thing. That was biting the hand that feeds you. Sucking very hard on it, even nibbling it in an affectionate kind of a way was OK, but you didn't actually bite it. Not when that hand was the Guide. The Guide was something sacred and special.
But that, thought Ford as he ducked and weaved his way down through the building, was about to change. And they had only themselves to blame. Look at all this stuff. Lines of neat grey office cubicles and executive workstation pods. The whole place was dreary with the hum of memos and minutes of meetings flitting through its electronic networks. Out in the street they were playing Hunt the Wocket for Zark's sake, but here in the very heart of the Guide offices no one was even recklessly kicking a ball around the corridors or wearing inappropriately coloured beachware.
`InfiniDim Enterprises,' Ford snarled to himself as he stalked rapidly down one corridor after another. Door after door magically opened to him without question. Elevators took him happily to places they should not. Ford was trying to pursue the most tangled and complicated route he could, heading generally downwards through the building. His happy little robot took care of everything, spreading waves of acquiescent joy through all the security circuits it encountered.
Ford thought it needed a name and decided to call it Emily Saunders, after a girl he had very fond memories of. Then he thought that Emily Saunders was an absurd name for a security robot, and decided to call it Colin instead, after Emily's dog.
He was moving deep into the bowels of the building now, into areas he had never entered before, areas of higher and higher security. He was beginning to encounter puzzled looks from the operatives he passed. At this level of security you didn't even call them people anymore. And they were probably doing stuff that only operatives would do. When they went home to their families in the evening they became people again, and when their little children looked up to them with their sweet shining eyes and said `Daddy, what did you do all day today?' they just said, `I performed my duties as an operative,' and left it at that.
The truth of the matter was that all sorts of highly dodgy stuff went on behind the cheery, happy-go-lucky front that the Guide liked to put up --- or used to like to put up before this new InfiniDim Enterprises bunch marched in and started to make the whole thing highly dodgy. There were all kinds of tax scams and rackets and graft and shady deals supporting the shining edifice, and down in the secure research and data-processing levels of the building was where it all went on.
Every few years the Guide would set up its business, and indeed its building on a new world, and all would be sunshine and laughter for a while as the Guide would put down its roots in the local culture and economy, provide employment, a sense of glamour and adventure and, in the end, not quite as much actual revenue as the locals had expected.
When the Guide moved on, taking its building with it, it left a little like a thief in the night. Exactly like a thief in the night in fact. It usually left in the very early hours of the morning, and the following day there always turned out to be a very great deal of stuff missing. Whole cultures and economies would collapse in its wake, often within a week, leaving once thriving planets desolate and shell-shocked but still somehow feeling they had been part of some great adventure.
The `operatives' who shot puzzled glances at Ford as he marched on into the depths of the building's most sensitive areas were reassured by the presence of Colin, who was flying along with him in a buzz of emotional fulfilment and easing his path for him at every stage.
Alarms were starting to go off in other parts of the building. Perhaps that meant that Vann Harl had already been discovered, which might be a problem. Ford had been hoping he would be able to slip the Ident-i-Eeze back into his pocket before he came round. Well, that was a problem for later, and he didn't for the moment have the faintest idea how he was going to solve it. For the moment he wasn't going to worry. Wherever he went with little Colin, he was surrounded by a cocoon of sweetness and light and, most importantly, willing and acquiescent elevators and positively obsequious doors.
Ford even began to whistle, which was probably his mistake. Nobody likes a whistler, particularly not the divinity that shapes our ends.
The next door wouldn't open.
And that was a pity, because it was the very one that Ford had been making for. It stood there before him, grey and resolutely closed with a sign on it saying:
Colin reported that the doors had been getting generally a lot grimmer down in these lower reaches of the building.
They were about ten stories below ground level now. The air was refrigerated and the tasteful grey hessian wall-weave had given way to brutal grey bolted steel walls. Colin's rampant euphoria had subsided into a kind of determined cheeriness. He said that he was beginning to tire a little. It was taking all his energy to pump the slightest bonhomie whatsoever into the doors down here.
Ford kicked at the door. It opened.
`Mixture of pleasure and pain,' he muttered. `Always does the trick.'
He walked in and Colin flew in after him. Even with a wire stuck straight into his pleasure electrode his happiness was a nervous kind of happiness. He bobbed around a little.
The room was small, grey and humming.
This was the nerve centre of the entire Guide.
The computer terminals that lined the grey walls were windows on to every aspect of the Guide's operations. Here, on the left-hand side of the room, reports were gathered over the Sub- Etha-Net from field researchers in every corner of the Galaxy, fed straight up into the network of sub-editor's offices where they had all the good bits cut out by secretaries because the sub-editors were out having lunch. The remaining copy would then be shot across to the other half of the building --- the other leg of the `H' --- which was the legal department. The legal department would cut out anything that was still even remotely good from what remained and fire it back to the offices of the executive editors, who were also out at lunch. So the editors' secretaries would read it and say it was stupid and cut most of what was left.
When any of the editors finally staggered in from lunch they would exclaim `What is this feeble crap that X' --- where X was the name of the field researcher in question --- `has sent us from half-way across the bloody Galaxy? What's the point of having somebody spending three whole orbital periods out in the bloody Gagrakacka Mind Zones, with all that stuff going on out there, if this load of anaemic squitter is the best he can be bothered to send us. Disallow his expenses!'
`What shall we do with the copy?' the secretary would ask.
`Ah, put it out over the network. Got to have something going out there. I've got a headache, I'm going home.'
So the edited copy would go for one last slash and burn through the legal department, and then be sent back down here where it would be broadcast out over the Sub-Etha-Net for instantaneous retrieval anywhere in the Galaxy. That was handled by equipment which was monitored and controlled by the terminals on the right-hand side of the room.
Meanwhile the order to disallow the researcher's expenses was relayed down to the computer terminal stuck off in the right-hand corner, and it was to this terminal that Ford Prefect now swiftly made his way.
(If you are reading this on planet Earth then: a) Good luck to you. There is an awful lot of stuff you don't know anything about, but you are not alone in this. It's just that in your case the consequences of not knowing any of this stuff are particularly terrible, but then, hey, that's just the way the cookie gets completely stomped on and obliterated. b) Don't imagine you know what a computer terminal is. A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the universe and move bits of it about.)
Ford hurried over to the terminal, sat in front of it and quickly dipped himself into its universe.
It wasn't the normal universe he knew. It was a universe of densely enfolded worlds, of wild topographies, towering mountain peaks, heart stopping ravines, of moons shattering off into sea horses, hurtful blurting crevices, silently heaving oceans and bottomless hurtling hooping funts.
He held still to get his bearings. He controlled his breathing, closed his eyes and looked again.
So this was where accountants spent their time. There was clearly more to them than met the eye. He looked around carefully, trying not to let it all swell and swim and overwhelm him.
He didn't know his way around this universe. He didn't even know the physical laws that determined its dimensional extents or behaviours, but his instinct told him to look for the most outstanding feature he could detect and make towards it.
Way off in some indistinguishable distance --- was it a mile or a million or a mote in his eye? --- was a stunning peak that overarched the sky, climbed and climbed and spread out in flowering aigrettes<footnote 3>, agglomerates<footnote 4>, and archimandrites<footnote 5>.
He weltered towards it, hooling and thurling, and at last reached it in a meaninglessly long umthingth of time.
He clung to it, arms outspread, gripping tightly on to its roughly gnarled and pitted surface. Once he was certain that he was secure he made the hideous mistake of looking down.
While he had been weltering, hooling and thurling, the distance beneath him had not bothered him unduly, but now that he was gripping, the distance made his heart wilt and his brain bend. His fingers were white with pain and tension. His teeth were grinding and twisting against each other beyond his control. His eyes turned inwards with waves from the willowing extremities of nausea.
With an immense effort of will and faith he simply let go and pushed.
He felt himself float. Away. And then, counter-intuitively, upwards. And upwards.
He threw his shoulders back, let his arms drop, gazed upwards and let himself be drawn loosely, higher and higher.
Before long, insofar as such terms had any meaning in this virtual universe, a ledge loomed up ahead of him on which he could grip and on to which he could clamber.
He rose, he gripped, he clambered.
He panted a little. This was all a little stressful.
He held tightly on to the ledge as he sat. He wasn't certain if this was to prevent himself from falling down off it or rising up from it, but he needed something to grip on to as he surveyed the world in which he found himself.
The whirling, turning height span him and twisted his brain in upon itself till he found himself, eyes closed, whimpering and hugging the hideous wall of towering rock.
He slowly brought his breathing back under control again. He told himself repeatedly that he was just in a graphic representation of a world. A virtual universe. A simulated reality. He could snap back out of it at any moment.
He snapped back out of it.
He was sitting in a blue leatherette foam filled swivel-seated office chair in front of a computer terminal.
He was clinging to the face of an impossibly high peak perched on a narrow ledge above a drop of brain-swivelling dimensions.
It wasn't just the landscape being so far beneath him --- he wished it would stop undulating and waving.
He had to get a grip. Not on the rock wall --- that was an illusion. He had to get a grip on the situation, be able to look at the physical world he was in while drawing himself out of it emotionally.
He clenched inwardly and then, just as he had let go of the rock face itself, he let go of the idea of the rock face and let himself just sit there clearly and freely. He looked out at the world. He was breathing well. He was cool. He was in charge again.
He was in a four-dimensional topological model of the Guide's financial systems, and somebody or something would very shortly want to know why.
And here they came.
Swooping through virtual space towards him came a small flock of mean and steely-eyed creatures with pointy little heads, pencil moustaches and querulous demands as to who he was, what he was doing there, what his authorisation was, what the authorisation of his authorising agent was, what his inside leg measurement was and so on. Laser light flickered all over him as if he was a packet of biscuits at a supermarket check-out. The heavier duty laser guns were held, for the moment, in reserve. The fact that all of this was happening in virtual space made no difference. Being virtually killed by a virtual laser in virtual space is just as effective as the real thing, because you are as dead as you think you are.
The laser readers were becoming very agitated as they flickered over his fingerprints, his retina and the follicle pattern where his hair line was receding. They didn't like what they were finding at all. The chattering and screeching of highly personal and insolent questions was rising in pitch. A little surgical steel scraper was reaching out towards the skin at the nape of his neck when Ford, holding his breath and praying very slightly, pulled Vann Harl's Ident-i-Eeze out of his pocket and waved it in front of them.
Instantly every laser was diverted to the little card and Swept backwards and forwards over it and in it, examining and reading every molecule.
Then, just as suddenly, they stopped.
The entire flock of little virtual inspectors snapped to attention.
`Nice to see you, Mr Harl,' they said in smarmy unison. `Is there anything we can do for you?'
Ford smiled a slow and vicious smile. `Do you know,' he said, `I rather think there is?'
Five minutes later he was out of there.
About thirty seconds to do the job, and three minutes thirty to cover his tracks. He could have done anything he liked in the virtual structure, more or less. He could have transferred ownership of the entire organisation into his own name, but he doubted if that would have gone unnoticed. He didn't want it anyway. It would have meant responsibility, working late nights at the office, not to mention massive and time-consuming fraud investigations and a fair amount of time in jail. He wanted something that nobody other than the computer would notice: that was the bit that took thirty seconds.
The thing that took three minutes thirty was programming the computer not to notice that it had noticed anything.
It had to want not to know about what Ford was up to, and then he could safely leave the computer to rationalise its own defences against the information ever emerging. It was a programming technique that had been reverse-engineered from the sort of psychotic mental blocks that otherwise perfectly normal people had been observed invariably to develop when elected to high political office.
The other minute was spent discovering that the computer system already had a mental block. A big one.
He would never have discovered it if he hadn't been busy engineering a mental block himself. He came across a whole slew of smooth and plausible denial procedures and diversionary subroutines exactly where he had been planning to install his own. The computer denied all knowledge of them, of course, then blankly refused to accept that there was anything even to deny knowledge of, and was generally so convincing that even Ford almost found himself thinking he must have made a mistake.
He was impressed.
He was so impressed, in fact, that he didn't bother to install his own mental block procedures, he just set up calls to the ones that were already there, which then called themselves when questioned, and so on.
He quickly set about debugging the little bits of code he had installed himself, only to discover they weren't there. Cursing, he searched all over for them, but could find no trace of them at all.
He was just about to start installing them all over again when he realised that the reason he couldn't find them was that they were working already.
He grinned with satisfaction.
He tried to discover what the computer's other mental block was all about, but it seemed, not unnaturally, to have a mental block about it. He could no longer find any trace of it at all, in fact; it was that good. He wondered if he had been imagining it. He wondered if he had been imagining that it was something to do with something in the building, and something to do with the number 13. He ran a few tests. Yes, he had obviously been imagining it.
No time for fancy routes now, there was obviously a major security alert in progress. Ford took the elevator up to the ground floor to change to the express elevators. He had somehow to get the Ident-i-Eeze back into Harl's pocket before it was missed. How, he didn't know.
The doors of the elevator slid open to reveal a large posse of security guards and robots poised waiting for it and brandishing filthy looking weapons.
They ordered him out.
With a shrug he stepped forward. They all pushed rudely past him into the elevator which took them down to continue their search for him on the lower levels.
This was fun, thought Ford, giving Colin a friendly pat. Colin was about the first genuinely useful robot Ford had ever encountered. Colin bobbed along in the air in front of him in a lather of cheerful ecstasy. Ford was glad he'd named him after a dog.
He was highly tempted just to leave at that point and hope for the best, but he knew that the best had a far greater chance of actually occurring if Harl did not discover that his Ident-i-Eeze was missing. He had somehow, surreptitiously, to return it.
They went to the express elevators.
`Hi,' said the elevator they got into.
`Hi,' said Ford.
`Where can I take you folks today?' said the elevator.
`Floor 23,' said Ford.
`Seems to be a popular floor today,' said the elevator.
`Hmm,' thought Ford, not liking the sound of that at all. The elevator lit up the twenty-third floor on its floor display and started to zoom upwards. Something about the floor display tweaked at Ford's mind but he couldn't catch what it was and forgot about it. He was more worried about the idea of the floor he was going to being a popular one. He hadn't really thought through how he was going to deal with whatever it was that was happening up there because he had no idea what he was going to find. He would just have to busk it.
They were there.
The doors slid open.
There was the door to Harl's office, with a slight layer of dust around it. Ford knew that this dust consisted of billions of tiny molecular robots that had crawled out of the woodwork, built each other, rebuilt the door , disassembled each other and then crept back into the woodwork again and just waited for damage. Ford wondered what kind of life that was, but not for long because he was a lot more concerned about what his own life was like at that moment.
He took a deep breath and started his run.