`I hate to be anthropic about this,' he said to the strange thing behind the desk at the Resettlement Advice Centre on Pintleton Alpha, `but I'd quite like to live somewhere where the people look vaguely like me as well. You know. Sort of human.'
The strange thing behind the desk waved some of its stranger bits around and seemed rather taken aback by this. It oozed and glopped off its seat, thrashed its way slowly across the floor, ingested the old metal filing cabinet and then, with a great belch, excreted the appropriate drawer. It popped out a couple of glistening tentacles from its ear, removed some files from the drawer, sucked the drawer back in and vomited up the cabinet again. It thrashed its way back across the floor, slimed its way back up on to the seat and slapped the files on the table.
`See anything you fancy?' it asked.
Arthur looked nervously through some grubby and damp pieces of paper. He was definitely in some backwater part of the Galaxy here, and somewhere off to the left as far as the universe he knew and recognised was concerned. In the space where his own home should have been there was a rotten hick planet, drowned with rain and inhabited by thugs and boghogs. Even The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy seemed to work only fitfully here, which was why he was reduced to making these sorts of enquiries in these sorts of places. One place he always asked after was Stavromula Beta, but no one had ever heard of such a planet.
The available worlds looked pretty grim. They had little to offer him because he had little to offer them. He had been extremely chastened to realise that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and armagnac he didn't, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn't do it. Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it. There was not a lot of demand for his services.
Arthur's heart sank. This surprised him, because he thought it was already about as low as it could possibly be. He closed his eyes for a moment. He so much wanted to be home. He so much wanted his own home world, the actual Earth he had grown up on, not to have been demolished. He so much wanted none of this to have happened. He so much wanted that when he opened his eyes again he would be standing on the doorstep of his little cottage in the west country of England, that the sun would be shining over the green hills, the post van would be going up the lane, the daffodils would be blooming in his garden, and in the distance the pub would be opening for lunch. He so much wanted to take the newspaper down to the pub and read it over a pint of bitter. He so much wanted to do the crossword. He so much wanted to be able to get completely stuck on 17 across.
He opened his eyes.
The strange thing was pulsating irritably at him, tapping some kind of pseudopodia on the desk.
Arthur shook his head and looked at the next sheet of paper.
Grim, he thought. And the next.
Very grim. And the next.
Oh... Now that looked better.
It was a world called Bartledan. It had oxygen. It had green hills. It even, it seemed, had a renowned literary culture. But the thing that most aroused his interest was a photograph of a small bunch of Bartledanian people, standing around in a village square, smiling pleasantly at the camera.
`Ah,' he said, and held the picture up to the strange thing behind the desk.
Its eyes squirmed out on stalks and roiled up and down the piece of paper, leaving a glistening trail of slime all over it.
`Yes,' it said with distaste. `They do look exactly like you.'
Arthur moved to Bartledan and, using some money he had made by selling some toenail clippings and spit to a DNA bank, he bought himself a room in the village featured in the picture. It was pleasant there. The air was balmy. The people looked like him and seemed not to mind him being there. They didn't attack him with anything. He bought some clothes and a cupboard to put them in.
He had got himself a life. Now he had to find a purpose in it.
At first he tried to sit and read. But the literature of Bartledan, famed though it was throughout this sector of the Galaxy for its subtlety and grace, didn't seem to be able to sustain his interest. The problem was that it wasn't actually about human beings after all. It wasn't about what human beings wanted. The people of Bartledan were remarkably like human beings to look at, but when you said `Good evening' to one, he would tend to look around with a slight sense of surprise, sniff the air and say that, yes, he supposed that it probably was a goodish evening now that Arthur came to mention it.
`No, what I meant was to wish you a good evening,' Arthur would say, or rather, used to say. He soon learned to avoid these conversations. `I mean that I hope you have a good evening,' he would add.
`Wish?' the Bartledanian would say at last, in polite bafflement.
`Er, yes,' Arthur would then have said. `I'm just expressing the hope that...'
`What is hope?'
Good question, thought Arthur to himself, and retreated back to his room to think about things.
On the one hand he could only recognise and respect what he learnt about the Bartledanian view of the universe, which was that the universe was what the universe was, take it or leave it. On the other hand he could not help but feel that not to desire anything, not ever to. wish or to hope, was just not natural.
Natural. There was a tricky word.
He had long ago realised that a lot of things that he had thought of as natural, like buying people presents at Christmas, stopping at red lights or falling at a rate of 32 feet/second/second, were just the habits of his own world and didn't necessarily work the same way anywhere else; but not to wish --- that really couldn't be natural, could it? That would be like not breathing.
Breathing was another thing that the Bartledanians didn't do, despite all the oxygen in the atmosphere. They just stood there. Occasionally they ran around and played netball and stuff (without ever wishing to win though, of course --- they would just play, and whoever won, won), but they never actually breathed. It was, for some reason, unnecessary. Arthur quickly learned that playing netball with them was just too spooky. Though they looked like humans, and even moved and sounded like humans, they didn't breathe and they didn't wish for things.
Breathing and wishing for things, on the other hand, was just about all that Arthur seemed to do all day. Sometimes he would wish for things so much that his breathing would get quite agitated, and he would have to go and lie down for a bit. On his own. In his small room. So far from the world which had given birth to him that his brain could not even process the sort of numbers involved without just going limp.
He preferred not to think about it. He preferred just to sit and read --- or at least he would prefer it if there was anything worth reading. But nobody in Bartledanian stories ever wanted anything. Not even a glass of water. Certainly, they would fetch one if they were thirsty, but if there wasn't one available, they would think no more about it. He had just read an entire book in which the main character had, over the course of a week, done some work in his garden, played a great deal of netball, helped mend a road, fathered a child on his wife and then unexpectedly died of thirst just before the last chapter. In exasperation Arthur had combed his way back through the book and in the end had found a passing reference to some problem with the plumbing in Chapter 2. And that was it. So the guy dies. It just happens.
It wasn't even the climax of the book, because there wasn't one. The character died about a third of the way through the penultimate chapter of the book, and the rest of it was just more stuff about road-mending. The book just finished dead at the one hundred thousandth word, because that was how long books were on Bartledan.
Arthur threw the book across the room, sold the room and left. He started to travel with wild abandon, trading in more and more spit, toenails, fingernails, blood, hair, anything that anybody wanted, for tickets. For semen, he discovered, he could travel first class. He settled nowhere, but only existed in the hermetic, twilight world of the cabins of hyperspatial starships, eating, drinking, sleeping, watching movies, only stopping at spaceports to donate more DNA and catch the next long-haul ship out. He waited and waited for another accident to happen.
The trouble with trying to make the right accident happen is that it won't. That is not what `accident' means. The accident that eventually occurred was not what he had planned at all. The ship he was on blipped in hyperspace, flickered horribly between ninety-seven different points in the Galaxy simultaneously, caught the unexpected gravitational pull of an uncharted planet in one of them, became ensnared in its outer atmosphere and began to fall, screaming and tearing, into it.
The ship's systems protested all the way down that everything was perfectly normal and under control, but when it went into a final hectic spin, ripped wildly through half a mile of trees and finally exploded into a seething ball of flame it became clear that this was not the case.
Fire engulfed the forest, boiled into the night, then neatly put itself out, as all unscheduled fires over a certain size are now required to do by law. For a short while afterwards, other small fires flared up here and there as odd pieces of scattered debris exploded quietly in their own time. Then they too died away.
Arthur Dent, because of the sheer boredom of endless interstellar flight, was the only one on board who had actually familiarised himself with the ship's safety procedures in case of an unscheduled landing, and was therefore the sole survivor. He lay dazed, broken and bleeding in a sort of fluffy pink plastic cocoon with `Have a nice day' printed in over three thousand different languages all over it.
Black, roaring silences swam sickeningly through his shattered mind. He knew with a kind of resigned certainty that he would survive, because he had not yet been to Stavromula Beta.
After what seemed an eternity of pain and darkness, he became aware of quiet shapes moving around him.