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Chapter Seventeen

For a long period of time there was much speculation and controversy about where the so-called `missing matter' of the Universe had got to. All over the Galaxy the science departments of all the major universities were acquiring more and more elaborate equipment to probe and search the hearts of distant galaxies, and then the very centre and the very edges of the whole Universe, but when eventually it was tracked down it turned out in fact to he all the stuff which the equipment had been packed in.

There was quite a large quantity of missing matter in the box, little soft round white pellets of missing matter, which Random discarded for future generations of physicists to track down and discover all over again once the findings of the current generation of physicists had been lost and forgotten about.

Out of the pellets of missing matter she lifted the featureless black disk. She put it down on a rock beside her and sifted amongst all the missing matter to see if there was anything else, a manual or some attachments or something, but there was nothing else at all. Just the black disk.

She shone the torch on it.

As she did so, cracks began to appear along its apparently featureless surface. Random backed away nervously, but then saw that the thing, whatever it was, was merely unfolding itself.

The process was wonderfully beautiful. It was extraordinarily elaborate but also simple and elegant. It was like a piece of self-opening origami, or a rosebud blooming into a rose in just a few seconds.

Where just a few moments earlier there had been a smoothly curved black disk there was now a bird. A bird, hovering there.

Random continued to back away from it, carefully and watchfully.

It was a little like a pikka bird, only rather smaller. That is to say, in fact it was larger, or to be more exact, precisely the same size or, at least, not less than twice the size. It was also both a lot bluer and a lot pinker than pikka birds, while at the same time being perfectly black.

There was also something very odd about it, which Random couldn't immediately make out.

It certainly shared with pikka birds the impression it gave that it was watching something that you couldn't see.

Suddenly it vanished.

Then, just as suddenly everything went black. Random dropped into a tense crouch, feeling for the specially sharpened rock in her pocket again. Then the blackness receded and rolled itself up into a ball and then the blackness was the bird again. It hung in the air in front of her, beating its wings slowly and staring at her.

`Excuse me,' it said suddenly, `I just have to calibrate myself. Can you hear me when I say this?'

`When you say what?' demanded Random.

`Good,' said the bird. `And can you hear me when I say this?' It spoke this time at a much higher pitch.

`Yes, of course I can!' said Random.

`And can you hear me when I say this?' it said, this time in a sepulchrally deep voice.

`Yes!'

There was then a pause.

`No obviously not,' said the bird after a few seconds. `Good, well your hearing range is obviously between 20 and 16 KHz. So. Is this comfortable for you?' it said in a pleasant light tenor. `No uncomfortable harmonics screeching away in the upper register? Obviously not. Good. I can use those as data channels. Now. How many of me can you see?'

Suddenly the air was full of nothing but interlocking birds. Random was well used to spending time in virtual realities, but this was something far weirder than anything she had previously encountered. It was as if the whole geometry of space was redefined in seamless bird shapes.

Random gasped and flung her arms round her face, her arms moving through bird-shaped space.

`Hmmm, obviously way too many,' said the bird. `How about now?'

It concertina-ed into a tunnel of birds, as if it was a bird caught between parallel mirrors, reflecting infinitely into the distance.

`What are you?' shouted Random.

`We'll come to that in a minute,' said the bird. `Just how many, please?'

`Well, you're sort of...' Random gestured helplessly off into the distance.

`I see, still infinite in extent, but at least we're homing in on the right dimensional matrix. Good. No, the answer is an orange and two lemons.'

`Lemons?'

`If I have three lemons and three oranges and I lose two oranges and a lemon what do I have left?'

`Huh?'

`OK, so you think that time flows that way, do you? Interesting. Am I still infinite?' it asked, ballooning this way and that in space. `Am I infinite now? How yellow am I?'

Moment by moment the bird was going through mind-mangling transformations of shape and extent.

`I can't...' said Random bewildered.

`You don't have to answer, I can tell from watching you now. So. Am I your mother? Am I a rock? Do I seem huge, squishy and sinuously intertwined? No? How about now? Am I going backwards?'

For once the bird was perfectly still and steady.

`No,' Said Random.

`Well I was in fact, I was moving backwards in time. Hmmm. Well I think we've sorted all that out now. If you'd like to know, I can tell you that in your universe you move freely in three dimensions that you call space. You move in a straight line in a fourth, which you call time, and stay rooted to one place in a fifth, which is the first fundamental of probability. After that it gets a hit complicated, and there's all sorts of stuff going on in dimensions 13 to 22 that you really wouldn't want to know about. All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it's pretty damn complicated in the first place. I can easily not say words like ``damn'' if it offends you.'

`Say what you damn well like.'

`I will.'

`What the hell are you?' demanded Random.

`I am The Guide. In your universe I am your Guide. In fact I inhabit what is technically known as the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash which means... well, let me show you.'

It turned in mid-air and swooped out of the cave, and then perched on a rock, just beneath an overhang, out of the rain, which was getting heavier again.

`Come on,' it said, `watch this.'

Random didn't like being bossed around by a bird, but she followed it to the mouth of the cave anyway, still fingering the rock in her pocket.

`Rain,' said the bird. `You see? Just rain.'

`I know what rain is.'

Sheets of the stuff were sweeping through the night, moonlight sifting through it.

`So what is it?'

`What do you mean, what is it? Look, who are you? What were you doing in that box? Why have I spent a night running through the forest fending off demented squirrels to find that all I've got at the end of it is a bird asking me what rain is. It's just water falling through the bloody air, that's what it is. Anything else you want to know or can we go home now?'

There was a long pause before the bird answered, `You want to go home?'

`I haven't got a home!' Random almost shocked herself, she screamed the words so loudly.

`Look into the rain...' said the bird Guide.

`I'm looking into the rain! What else is there to look at?'

`What do you see?'

`What do you mean, you stupid bird? I just see a load of rain. It's just water, falling.'

`What shapes do you see in the water?'

`Shapes? There aren't any shapes. It's just, just...'

`Just a mish mash,' said the bird Guide.

`Yes...'

`Now what do you see?'

Just on the very edge of visibility a thin faint beam fanned out of the bird's eyes. In the dry air beneath the overhang there was nothing to see. Where the beam hit the drops of rain as they fell through it, there was a flat sheet of light, so bright and vivid it seemed solid.

`Oh great. A laser show,' said Random fractiously. `Never seen one of those before, of course, except at about five million rock concerts.'

`Tell me what you see!'

`Just a flat sheet! Stupid bird.'

`There's nothing there that wasn't there before. I'm just using light to draw your attention to certain drops at certain moments. Now what do you see?'

The light shut off.

`Nothing.'

`I'm doing exactly the same thing, but with ultra-violet light. You can't see it.'

`So what's the point of showing me something I can't see?'

`So that you understand that just because you see something, it doesn't mean to say it's there. And if you don't see something it doesn't mean to say it's not there, it's only what your senses bring to your attention.'

`I'm bored with this,' said Random, and then gasped.

Hanging in the rain was a giant and very vivid three-dimensional image of her father looking startled about something.

About two miles away behind Random, her father, struggling his way through the woods suddenly stopped. He was startled to see an image of himself looking startled about something hanging brightly in the rain-filled air about two miles away. About two miles away some distance to the right of the direction in which he was heading.

He was almost completely lost, convinced he was going to die of cold and wet and exhaustion and beginning to wish he could just get on with it. He had just been brought an entire golfing magazine by a squirrel, as well, and his brain. was beginning to howl and gibber.

Seeing a huge bright image of himself light up in the sky told him that, on balance, he was probably right to howl and gibber but probably wrong as far as the direction he was heading was concerned.

Taking a deep breath, he turned and headed off towards the inexplicable light show.

`OK, so what's that supposed to prove?' demanded Random. It was the fact that the image was her father that had startled her rather than the appearance of the image itself. She had seen her first hologram when she was two months old and had been put in it to play. She had seen her most recent one about half an hour ago playing the March of the AnjaQantine Star Guard.

`Only that it's no more there or not there than the sheet was,' said the bird. `It's just the interaction of water from the sky moving in one direction, with light at frequencies your senses can detect moving in another. It makes an apparently solid image in your mind. But it's all just images in the Mish Mash. Here's another one for you.'

`My mother!' said Random.

`No,' said the bird.

`I know my mother when I see her!'

The image was of a woman emerging from a spacecraft inside a large, grey hangar-like building. She was being escorted by a group of tall, thin purplish-green creatures. It was definitely Random's mother. Well, almost definitely. Trillian wouldn't have been walking quite so uncertainly in low gravity, or looking around her at a boring old life-support environment with quite such a disbelieving look on her face, or carrying such a quaint old camera.

`So who is it?' demanded Random.

`She is part of the extent of your mother on the probability axis,' said the bird Guide.

`I haven't the faintest idea what you mean.'

`Space, time and probability all have axes along which it is possible to move.'

`Still dunno. Though I think... No. Explain.'

`I thought you wanted to go home.'

`Explain!'

`Would you like to see your home?'

`See it? It was destroyed!'

`It is discontinuous along the probability axis. Look!'

Something very strange and wonderful now swam into view in the rain. It was a huge, bluish-greenish globe, misty and cloud-covered, turning with. majestic slowness against a black, starry background.

`Now you see it,' said the bird. `Now you don't.'

A little less than two miles away, now, Arthur Dent stood still in his tracks. He could not believe what he could see, hanging there, shrouded in rain, but brilliant and vividly real against the night sky --- the Earth. He gasped at the sight of it. Then, at the moment he gasped, it disappeared again. Then it appeared again. Then, and this was the bit that made him give up and stick straws in his hair, it turned into a sausage.

Random was also startled by the sight of this huge, blue and green and watery and misty sausage hanging above her. And now it was a string of sausages, or rather it was a string of sausages in which many of the sausages were missing. The whole brilliant string turned and span in a bewildering dance in the air and then gradually slowed, grew insubstantial and faded into the glistening darkness of the night.

`What was that?' asked Random, in a small voice.

`A glimpse along the probability axis of a discontinuously probable object.'

`I see.'

`Most objects mutate and change along their axis of probability, but the world of your origin does something slightly different. It lies on what you might call a fault line in the landscape of probability which means that at many probability co-ordinates, the whole of it simply ceases to exist. It has an inherent instability, which is typical of anything that lies within what are usually designated the Plural sectors. Make sense?'

`No.'

`Want to go and see for yourself?'

`To... Earth?'

`Yes.'

`Is that possible?'

The bird Guide did not answer at once. It spread its wings and, with an easy grace, ascended into the air and flew out into the rain which, once again, was beginning to lighten.

It soared ecstatically up into the night sky, lights flashed around it, dimensions dithered in its wake. It swooped and turned and looped and turned again and came at last to rest two feet in front of Random's face, its wings beating slowly and silently.

It spoke to her again.

`Your universe is vast to you. Vast in time, vast in space. That's because of the filters through which you perceive it. But I was built with no filters at all, which means I perceive the mish mash which contains all possible universes but which has, itself, no size at all. For me, anything is possible. I am omniscient and omnipotent, extremely vain, and, what is more, I come in a handy self-carrying package. You have to work out how much of the above is true.'

A slow smile spread over Random's face.

`You bloody little thing. You've been winding me up!'

`As I said, anything is possible.'

Random laughed. `OK,' she said. `Let's try and go to Earth. Let's go to Earth at some point on its, er...'

`Probability axis?'

`Yes. Where it hasn't been blown up. OK. So you're the Guide. How do we get a lift?'

`Reverse engineering.'

`What?'

`Reverse engineering. To me the flow of time is irrelevant. You decide what you want. I then merely make sure that it has already happened.'

`You're joking.'

`Anything is possible.'

Random frowned. `You are joking aren't you?'

`Let me put it another way,' said the bird. `Reverse engineering enables us to shortcut all the business of waiting for one of the horribly few spaceships that passes through your galactic sector every year or so to make up its mind about whether or not it feels like giving you a lift. You want a lift a ship arrives and gives you one. The pilot may think he has any one of a million reasons why he has decided to stop and pick you up. The real reason is that I have determined that he will.'

`This is you being extremely vain isn't it, little bird?'

The bird was silent.

`OK,' said Random. `I want a ship to take me to Earth.'

`Will this one do?'

It was so silent that Random had not noticed the descending spaceship until it was nearly on top of her.

Arthur had noticed it. He was a mile away now and closing. Just after the illuminated sausage display had drawn to its conclusion he had noticed the faint glimmerings of further lights coming down out of the clouds and had, to begin with, assumed it to be another piece of flashy son et lumiere.

It took a moment or so for it to dawn on him that it was an actual spaceship, and a moment or two longer for him to realise that it was dropping directly down to where he assumed his daughter to be. That was when, rain or no rain, leg injury or no leg injury, darkness or no darkness, he suddenly started really to run.

He fell almost immediately, slid and hurt his knee quite badly on a rock. He slithered back up to his feet and tried again. He had a horrible cold feeling that he was about to lose Random for ever. Limping and cursing, he ran. He didn't know what it was that had been in the box, but the name on it had been Ford Prefect, and that was the name he cursed as he ran.

The ship was one of the sexiest and most beautiful ones that Random had ever seen.

It was astounding. Silver, sleek, ineffable.

If she didn't know better she would have said it was an RW6. As it settled silently beside her she realised that it actually was an RW6 and she could scarcely breathe for excitement. An RW6 was the sort of thing you only saw in the sort of magazines that were designed to provoke civil unrest.

She was also extremely nervous. The manner and timing of its arrival was deeply unsettling. Either it was the most bizarre coincidence or something very peculiar and worrying was going on. She waited a little tensely for the ship's hatch to open. Her Guide --- she thought of it as hers now --- was hovering lightly over her right shoulder, its wings barely fluttering.

The hatch opened. Just a little dim light escaped. A moment or two passed and a figure emerged. He stood still for a moment or so, obviously trying to accustom his eyes to the darkness. Then he caught sight of Random standing there, and seemed a little surprised. He started to walk towards her. Then suddenly he shouted in surprise and started to run at her.

Random was not a good person to take a run at on a dark night when she was feeling a little strung out. She had unconsciously been fingering the rock in her pocket from the moment she saw the craft coming down.

Still running, slithering, hurtling, bumping into trees, Arthur saw at last that he was too late. The ship had only been on the ground for about three minutes, and now, silently, gracefully it was rising up above the trees again, turning smoothly in the fine speckle of rain to which the storm had now abated, climbing, climbing, tipping up its nose and, suddenly, effortlessly, hurtling up through the clouds.

Gone. Random was in it. It was impossible for Arthur to know this, but he just went ahead and knew it anyway. She was gone. He had had his stint at being a parent and could scarcely believe how badly he had done at it. He tried to continue running, but his feet were dragging, his knee was hurting like fury and he knew that he was too late.

He could not conceive that he could feel more wretched and awful than this, but he was wrong.

He limped his way at last to the cave where Random had sheltered and opened the box. The ground bore the indentations of the spacecraft that had landed there only minutes before, but of Random there was no sign. He wandered disconsolately into the cave, found the empty box and piles of missing matter pellets strewn around the place. He felt a little cross about that. He'd tried to teach her about cleaning up after herself. Feeling a bit cross with her about something like that helped him feel less desolate about her leaving. He knew he had no means of finding her.

His foot knocked against something unexpected. He bent down to pick it up, and was thoroughly surprised to discover what it was. It was his old Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. How did that come to be in the cave? He had never returned to collect it from the scene of the crash. He had not wanted to revisit the crash and he had not wanted the Guide again. He had reckoned he was here on Lamuella, making sandwiches for good. How did it come to be in the cave? It was active. The words on the cover flashed DON'T PANIC at him.

He went out of the cave again into the dim and damp moonlight. He sat on a rock to have a look through the old Guide, and then discovered it wasn't a rock, it was a person.


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