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Chapter Nineteen

It was a sight that Arthur never quite got used to, or tired of. He and Ford had tracked their way swiftly along the side of the small river that flowed down along the bed of the valley, and when at last they reached the margin of the plains they pulled themselves up into the branches of a large tree to get a better view of one of the stranger and more wonderful visions that the Galaxy has to offer.

The great thunderous herd of thousand upon thousand of Perfectly Normal Beasts was sweeping in magnificent array across the Anhondo Plain. In the early pale light of the morning, as the great animals charged through the fine steam of the sweat of their bodies mingled with the muddy mist churned up by their pounding hooves, their appearance seemed a little unreal and ghostly anyway, but what was heart-stopping about them was where they came from and where they went to, which appeared to be, simply, nowhere.

They formed a solid, charging phalanx roughly a hundred yards wide and half a mile long. The phalanx never moved, except that it exhibited a slight gradual drift sideways and backwards for the eight or nine days that it regularly appeared for. But though the phalanx stayed more or less constant, the great beasts of which it was composed charged steadily at upwards of twenty miles an hour, appearing suddenly from thin air at one end of the plain, and disappearing equally abruptly at the other end.

No one knew where they came from, no one knew where they went. They were so important to the lives of the Lamuellans, it was almost as if nobody liked to ask. Old Thrashbarg had said on one occasion that some times if you received an answer, the question might be taken away. Some of the villagers had privately said that this was the only properly wise thing they'd ever heard Thrashbarg say, and after a short debate on the matter, had put it down to chance.

The noise of the pounding of the hooves was so intense that it was hard to hear anything else above it.

`What did you say?' shouted Arthur.

`I said,' shouted Ford, `this looks like it might be some kind of evidence of dimensional drift.'

`Which is what?' shouted Arthur back.

`Well, a lot of people are beginning to worry that space/time is showing signs of cracking up with everything that's happening to it. There are quite a lot of worlds where you can see how the landmasses have cracked up and moved around just from the weirdly long or meandering routes that migrating animals take. This might be something like that. We live in twisted times. Still, in the absence of a decent spaceport...'

Arthur looked at him in a kind of frozen way.

`What do you mean?' he said.

`What do you mean, what do I mean?' shouted Ford. `You know perfectly well what I mean. We're going to ride our way out of here.'

`Are you seriously suggesting we try to ride a Perfectly Normal Beast?'

`Yeah. See where it goes to.'

`We'll be killed! No,' said Arthur, suddenly. `We won't be killed. At least I won't. Ford, have you ever heard of a planet called Stavromula Beta?'

Ford frowned. `Don't think so,' he said. He pulled out his own battered old copy of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and accessed it. `Any funny spelling?' he said.

`Don't know. I've only ever heard it said, and that was by someone who had a mouthful of other people's teeth. You remember I told you about Agrajag?'

Ford thought for a moment. `You mean the guy who was convinced you were getting him killed over and over again?'

`Yes. One of the places he claimed I'd got him killed was Stavromula Beta. Someone tries to shoot me, it seems. I duck and Agrajag, or at least, one of his many reincarnations, gets hit. It seems that this has definitely happened at some point in time so, I suppose, I can't get killed at least until after I've ducked on Stavromula Beta. Only no one's ever heard of it.'

`Hmm.' Ford tried a few other searches of the Hitch Hiker's Guide, but drew a blank.

`Nothing,' he said.

`I was just... no, I've never heard of it,' said Ford finally. He wondered why it was ringing a very, very faint bell, though.

`OK,' said Arthur. `I've seen the way the Lamuellan hunters trap Perfectly Normal Beasts. If you spear one in the herd it just gets trampled, so they have to lure them out one at a time for the kill. It's very like the way a matador works, you know, with a brightly coloured cape. You get one to charge at you and then step aside and execute a rather elegant swing through with the cape. Have you got anything like a brightly coloured cape about you?'

`This do?' said Ford, handing him his towel.

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