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Chapter Twelve

Ford tumbled through the open air in a cloud of glass splinters and chair parts. Again, he hadn't really thought things through, really, and was just playing it by ear, buying time. At times of major crisis he found it was often quite helpful to have his life flash before his eyes. It gave him a chance to reflect on things, see things in some sort of perspective, and it sometimes furnished him with a vital clue as to what to do next.

There was the ground rushing up to meet him at 30 feet per second per second, but he would, he thought, deal with that problem when he got to it. First things first.

Ah, here it came. His childhood. Hum drum stuff, he'd been through it all before. Images flashed by. Boring times on Betelgeuse Five. Zaphod Beeblebrox as a kid. Yes he knew all that. He wished he had some kind of fast forward in his brain. His seventh birthday party, being given his first towel. Come on, come on.

He was twisting and turning downwards, the outside air at this height a cold shock to his lungs. Trying not to inhale glass.

Early voyages to other planets. Oh for Zark's sake, this was like some sort of bloody travelogue documentary before the main feature. First beginning to work for the Guide.

Ah!

Those were the days. They worked out of a hut on the Bwenelli Atoll on Fanalla before the Riktanarqals and the Danqueds vertled it. Half a dozen guys, some towels, a handful of highly sophisticated digital devices, and most importantly a lot of dreams. No. Most importantly a lot of Fanallan rum. To be completely accurate, that Ol' Janx Spirit was the absolute most important thing, then the Fanallan rum, and also some of the beaches on the Atoll where the local girls would hang out, but the dreams were important as well. Whatever happened to those?

He couldn't quite remember what the dreams were in fact, but they had seemed immensely important at the time. They had certainly not involved this huge towering office block he was now falling down the side of. All of that had come when some of the original team had started to settle down and get greedy, while he and others had stayed out in the field, researching and hitch hiking, and gradually becoming more and more isolated from the corporate nightmare the Guide had inexorably turned into, and the architectural monstrosity it had come to occupy. Where were the dreams in that? He thought of all the corporate lawyers who occupied half of the building, all the `operatives' who occupied the lower levels, and all the sub-editors and their secretaries and their secretaries' lawyers and their secretaries' lawyers' secretaries, and worst of all the accountants and the marketing department.

He had half a mind just to keep on falling. Two fingers to the lot of them.

He was just passing the seventeenth floor now, where the marketing department hung out. Load of tosspots all arguing about what colour the Guide should be and exercising their infinitely infallible skills of being wise after the event. If any of them had chosen to look out of the window at that moment they would have been startled by the sight of Ford Prefect dropping past them to his certain death and flicking V-signs at them.

Sixteenth floor. Sub-editors. Bastards. What about all that copy of his they'd cut? Fifteen years of research he'd filed from one planet alone and they'd cut it to two words. `Mostly Harmless.' V-signs to them as well.

Fifteenth floor. Logistical Administration, whatever that was about. They all had big cars. That, he thought, was what that was about.

Fourteenth floor. Personnel. He had a very shrewd suspicion that it was they who had engineered his fifteen-year exile while the Guide metamorphosed into the corporate monolith (or rather, duolith --- mustn't forget the lawyers) it had become.

Thirteenth floor. Research and development.

Hang about.

Thirteenth floor.

He was having to think rather fast at the moment because the situation was becoming a little urgent.

He suddenly remembered the floor display panel in the elevator. It hadn't had a thirteenth floor. He'd thought no more about it because, having spent fifteen years on the rather backward planet Earth where they were superstitious about the number thirteen, he was used to being in buildings that numbered their floors without it. No reason for that here, though.

The windows of the thirteenth floor, he could not help noticing as he flashed swiftly by them, were darkened.

What was going on in there? He started to remember all the stuff that Harl had been talking about. One, new, multidimensional Guide spread across an infinite number of universes. It had sounded, the way Harl had put it, like wild meaninglessness dreamed up by the marketing department with the backing of the accountants. If it was any more real than that then it was a very weird and dangerous idea. Was it real? What was going on behind the darkened windows of the sealed-off thirteenth floor?

Ford felt a rising sense of curiosity, and then a rising sense of panic. That was the complete list of rising feelings he had. In every other respect he was falling very rapidly. He really ought to turn his mind to wondering how he was going to get out of this situation alive.

He glanced down. A hundred feet or so below him people were milling around, some of them beginning to look up expectantly. Clearing a space for him. Even temporarily calling off the wonderful and completely fatuous hunt for wockets. He would hate to disappoint them, but about two feet below him, he hadn't realised before, was Colin. Colin had obviously been happily dancing attendance and waiting for him to decide what he wanted to do.

`Colin!' Ford bawled.

Colin didn't respond. Ford went cold. Then he suddenly realised that he hadn't told Colin his name was Colin.

`Come up here!' Ford bawled.

Colin bobbed up beside him. Colin was enjoying the ride down immensely and hoped that Ford was, too.

Colin's world went unexpectedly dark as Ford's towel suddenly enveloped him. Colin immediately felt himself get much, much heavier. He was thrilled and delighted by the challenge that Ford had presented him with. Just not sure if he could handle it, that was all.

The towel was slung over Colin. Ford was hanging from the towel, gripping to its seams. Other hitch hikers had seen fit to modify their towels in exotic ways, weaving all kinds of esoteric tools and utilities and even computer equipment into their fabric. Ford was a purist. He liked to keep things simple. He carried a regular towel from a regular domestic soft furnishings shop. It even had a kind of blue and pink floral pattern despite his repeated attempts to bleach and stone wash it. It had a couple of pieces of wire threaded into it, a bit of flexible writing stick, and also some nutrients soaked into one of the corners of the fabric so he could suck it in an emergency, but otherwise it was a simple towel you could dry your face on.

The only actual modification he had been persuaded by a friend to make to it was to reinforce the seams.

Ford gripped the seams like a maniac.

They were still descending, but the rate had slowed.

`Up, Colin!' he shouted.

Nothing.

`Your name,' shouted Ford, `is Colin. So when I shout ``Up, Colin!'' I want you, Colin, to go up. OK? Up, Colin!'

Nothing. Or rather a sort of muffled groaning sound from Colin. Ford was very anxious. They were descending very slowly now, but Ford was very anxious about the sort of people he could see assembling on the ground beneath him. Friendly, local, wocket-hunting types were dispersing, and thick, heavy, bull-necked, slug-like creatures with rocket launchers were, it seemed, sliding out of what was usually called thin air. Thin air, as all experienced Galactic travellers well know, is, in fact, extremely thick with multi-dimensional complexities.

`Up,' bellowed Ford again. `Up! Colin, go up!'

Colin was straining and groaning. They were now more or less stationary in the air. Ford felt as if his fingers were breaking.

`Up!'

They stayed put.

`Up, up, up!'

A slug was preparing to launch a rocket at him. Ford couldn't believe it. He was hanging from a towel in mid-air and a slug was preparing to fire rockets at him. He was running out of anything he could think of doing and was beginning to get seriously alarmed.

This was the sort of predicament that he usually relied on having the Guide available for to give advice, however infuriating or glib, but this was not a moment for reaching into his pocket. And the Guide seemed to be no longer a friend and ally but was now itself a source of danger. These were the Guide offices he was hanging outside, for Zark's sake, in danger of his life from the people who now appeared to own the thing. What had become of all the dreams he vaguely remembered having on the Bwenelli Atoll? They should have let it all be. They should have stayed there. Stayed on the beach. Loved good women. Lived on fish. He should have known it was all wrong the moment they started hanging grand pianos over the sea-monster pool in the atrium. He began to feel thoroughly wasted and miserable. His fingers were on fire with clenched pain. And his ankle was still hurting.

Oh thank you, ankle, he thought to himself bitterly. Thank you for bringing up your problems at this time. I expect you'd like a nice warm footbath to make you feel better, wouldn't you? Or at least you'd like me to...

He had an idea.

The armoured slug had hoisted the rocket launcher up on to its shoulder. The rocket was presumably designed to hit anything in its path that moved.

Ford tried not to sweat because he could feel his grip on the seams of his towel slipping.

With the toe of his good foot he nudged and prised at the heel of the shoe on his hurting foot.

`Go up, damn you!' Ford muttered hopelessly to Colin, who was cheerily straining away but unable to rise. Ford worked away at the heel of his shoe.

He was trying to judge the timing, but there was no point. Just go for it. He only had one shot and that was it. He had now eased the back of his shoe down off his heel. His twisted ankle felt a little better. Well that was good, wasn't it?

With his other foot he kicked at the heel of the shoe. It slipped off his foot and fell through the air. About half a second later a rocket erupted up from the muzzle of its launcher, encountered the shoe falling through its path, went straight for it, hit it, and exploded with a great sense of satisfaction and achievement.

This happened about fifteen feet from the ground.

The main force of the explosion was directed downwards. Where, a second earlier, there had been a squad of InfiniDim Enterprises executives with a rocket launcher standing on an elegant terraced plaza paved with large slabs of lustrous stone cut from the ancient alabastrum quarries of Zentalquabula there was now, instead, a bit of a pit with nasty bits in it.

A great wump of hot air welled up from the explosion throwing Ford and Colin violently up into the sky. Ford fought desperately and blindly to hold on and failed. He turned helplessly upwards through the sky, reached the peak of a parabola, paused and then started to fall again. He fell and fell and fell and suddenly winded himself badly on Colin, who was still rising.

He clasped himself desperately on to the small spherical robot. Colin slewed wildly through the air towards the tower of the Guide offices, trying delightedly to control himself and slow down.

The world span sickeningly round Ford's head as they span and twisted round each other and then, equally sickeningly, everything suddenly stopped.

Ford found himself deposited dizzily on a window ledge.

His towel fell past and he grabbed at it and caught it.

Colin bobbed in the air inches away from him.

Ford looked around himself in a bruised, bleeding and breathless daze. The ledge was only about a foot wide and he was perched precariously on it, thirteen stories up.

Thirteen.

He knew they were thirteen stories up because the windows were dark. He was bitterly upset. He had bought those shoes for some absurd price in a store on the Lower East Side in New York. He had, as a result, written an entire essay on the joys of great footwear, all of which had been jettisoned in the `Mostly harmless' debacle. Damn everything.

And now one of the shoes was gone. He threw his head back and stared at the sky.

It wouldn't be such a grim tragedy if the planet in question hadn't been demolished, which meant that he wouldn't even be able to get another pair.

Yes, given the infinite sideways extension of probability there was, of course, an almost infinite multiplicity of planets Earth, but, when you came down to it, a major pair of shoes wasn't something you could just replace by mucking about in multidimensional space/time.

He sighed.

Oh well, he'd better make the best of it. At least it had saved his life. For the time being.

He was perched on a foot-wide ledge thirteen stories up the side of a building and he wasn't at all sure that that was worth a good shoe.

He stared in woozily through the darkened glass.

It was as dark and silent as the tomb.

No. That was a ridiculous thing to think. He'd been to some great parties in tombs.

Could he detect some movement? He wasn't quite sure. It seemed that he could see some kind of weird, flapping shadow. Perhaps it was just blood dribbling over his eyelashes . He wiped it away. Boy, he'd love to have a farm somewhere, keep some sheep. He peered into the window again, trying to make out what the shape was, but he had the feeling, so common in today's universe, that he was looking into some kind of optical illusion and that his eyes were just playing silly buggers with him.

Was there a bird of some kind in there? Was that what they had hidden away up here on a concealed floor behind darkened, rocket-proof glass? Someone's aviary? There was certainly something flapping about in there, but it seemed like not so much a bird, more a kind of bird-shaped hole in space.

He closed his eyes, which he'd been wanting to do for a bit anyway. He wondered what the hell to do next. Jump? Climb? He didn't think there was going to be any way of breaking in. OK, the supposedly rocket-proof glass hadn't stood up, when it came to it, to an actual rocket, but then that had been a rocket that had been fired at very short range from inside, which probably wasn't what the engineers who designed it had had in mind. It didn't mean he was going to be able to break the window here by wrapping his fist in his towel and punching. What the hell, he tried it anyway and hurt his fist. It was just as well he couldn't get a good swing from where he was sitting or he might have hurt it quite badly. The building had been sturdily reinforced when it was completely rebuilt after the Frogstar attack, and was probably the most heavily armoured publishing company in the business, but there was always, he thought, some weakness in any system designed by a corporate committee. He had already found one of them. The engineers who designed the windows had not expected them to be hit by a rocket from short range from the inside, so the window had failed.

So, what would the engineers not be expecting someone sitting on the ledge outside the window to do?

He wracked his brains for a moment or so before he got it.

The thing they wouldn't be expecting him to do was to be there in the first place. Only an absolute idiot would be sitting where he was, so he was winning already. A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

He pulled his newly acquired credit card from his pocket, slid it into a crack where the window met its surrounding frame, and did something a rocket would not have been able to do. He wiggled it around a bit. He felt a catch slip. He slid the window open and almost fell backwards off the ledge laughing, giving thanks as he did so for the Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots of SrDt 3454.

The Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots of SrDt 3454 had started off as just a lot of hot air. Hot air was, of course, the problem that ventilation was supposed to solve and generally it had solved the problem reasonably well up to the point when someone invented air-conditioning, which solved the problem far more throbbingly.

And that was all well and good provided you could stand the noise and the dribbling until someone else came up with something even sexier and smarter than air-conditioning which was called in-building climate control.

Now this was quite something.

The major differences from just ordinary air-conditioning were that it was thrillingly more expensive, involved a huge amount of sophisticated measuring and regulating equipment which was far better at knowing, moment by moment, what kind of air people wanted to breathe than mere people did.

It also meant that, to be sure that mere people didn't muck up the sophisticated calculations which the system was making on their behalf, all the windows in the buildings were built sealed shut. This is true.

While the systems were being installed, a number of people who were going to work in the buildings found themselves having conversations with Breathe-o-Smart systems fitters which went something like this:

`But what if we want to have the windows open?'

`You won't want to have the windows open with new Breathe- o-Smart.'

`Yes but supposing we just wanted to have them open for a little bit?'

`You won't want to have them open even for a little bit. The new Breathe-o-Smart system will see to that.'

`Hmmm.'

`Enjoy Breathe-o-Smart!'

`OK, so what if the Breathe-o-Smart breaks down or goes wrong or something?'

`Ah! One of the smartest features of the Breathe-o-Smart is that it cannot possibly go wrong. So. No worries on that score. Enjoy your breathing now, and have a nice day.'

(It was, of course, as a result of the Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots of SrDt 3454, that all mechanical or electrical or quantum-mechanical or hydraulic or even wind, steam or piston-driven devices, are now requited to have a certain legend emblazoned on them somewhere. It doesn't matter how small the object is, the designers of the object have got to find a way of squeezing the legend in somewhere, because it is their attention which is being drawn to it rather than necessarily that of the user's.

The legend is this:

`The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.')

Major heat waves started to coincide, with almost magical precision, with major failures of the Breathe-o-Smart systems. To begin with this merely caused simmering resentment and only a few deaths from asphyxiation.

The real horror erupted on the day that three events happened simultaneously. The first event was that Breathe-o-Smart Inc. issued a statement to the effect that best results were achieved by using their systems in temperate climates.

The second event was the breakdown of a Breathe-o-Smart system on a particularly hot and humid day with the resulting evacuation of many hundreds of office staff into the street where they met the third event, which was a rampaging mob of longdistance telephone operators who had got so twisted with having to say, all day and every day, `Thank you for using BS&S' to every single idiot who picked up a phone that they had finally taken to the streets with trash cans, megaphones and rifles.

In the ensuing days of carnage every single window in the city, rocket-proof or not, was smashed, usually to accompanying cries of `Get off the line, asshole! I don't care what number you want, what extension you're calling from. Go and stick a firework up your bottom! Yeeehaah! Hoo Hoo Hoo! Velooooom! Squawk!' and a variety of other animal noises that they didn't get a chance to practise in the normal line of their work.

As a result of this, all telephone operators were granted a constitutional right to say `Use BS&S and die!' at least once an hour when answering the phone and all office buildings were required to have windows that opened, even if only a little bit.

Another, unexpected result was a dramatic lowering of the suicide rate. All sorts of stressed and rising executives who had been forced, during the dark days of the Breathe-o-Smart tyranny, to jump in front of trains or stab themselves, could now just clamber out on to their own window ledges and leap off at their leisure. What frequently happened, though, was that in the moment or two they had to look around and gather their thoughts they would suddenly discover that all they had really needed was a breath of air and a fresh perspective on things, and maybe also a farm on which they could keep a few sheep.

Another completely unlooked for result was that Ford Prefect, stranded thirteen stories up a heavily armoured building armed with nothing but a towel and a credit card was nevertheless able to clamber through a supposedly rocket-proof window to safety.

He closed the window neatly after him, having first allowed Colin to follow him through, and then started to look around for this bird thing.

The thing he realised about the windows was this: because they had been converted into openable windows after they had first been designed to be impregnable, they were, in fact, much less secure than if they had been designed as openable windows in the first place.

Hey ho, it's a funny old life, he was just thinking to himself, when he suddenly realised that the room he had gone to all this trouble to break into was not a very interesting one.

He stopped in surprise.

Where was the strange flapping shape? Where was anything that was worth all this palaver --- the extraordinary veil of secrecy that seemed to lie over this room and the equally extraordinary sequence of events that had seemed to conspire to get him into it?

The room, like every other room in this building now, was done out in some appallingly tasteful grey. There were a few charts and drawings on the wall. Most of them were meaningless to Ford, but then he came across something that was obviously a mock-up for a poster of some kind.

There was a kind of bird-like logo on it, and a slogan which said `The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Mk II: the single most astounding thing of any kind ever. Coming soon to a dimension near you.' No more information than that.

Ford looked around again. Then his attention was gradually drawn to Colin, the absurdly over-happy security robot, who was cowering in a corner of the room gibbering with what seemed strangely like fear.

Odd, thought Ford. He looked around to see what it was that Colin might have been reacting to. Then he saw something that he hadn't noticed before, lying quietly on top of a work bench.

It was circular and black and about the size of a small side plate. Its top and its bottom were smoothly convex so that it resembled a small lightweight throwing discus.

Its surfaces seemed to be completely smooth, unbroken and featureless.

It was doing nothing.

Then Ford noticed that there was something written on it. Strange. There hadn't been anything written on it a moment ago and now suddenly there was. There just didn't seem to have been any observable transition between the two states.

All it said, in small, alarming letters was a single word:

PANIC

A moment ago there hadn't been any marks or cracks in its surface. Now there were. They were growing.

Panic, the Guide Mk II said. Ford begin to do as he was told. He had just remembered why the slug-like creatures looked familiar. Their colour scheme was a kind of corporate grey, but in all other respects they looked exactly like Vogons.


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