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Chapter Twenty-two

Daylight exploded around them. Hot, heavy sun. A desert plain stretched out ahead in a haze of heat. They thundered out into it.

`Jump!' shouted Ford Prefect.

`What?' shouted Arthur Dent, holding on for dear life.

There was no reply.

`What did you say?' shouted Arthur again, and then realised that Ford Prefect was no longer there. He looked around in panic and started to slip. Realising he couldn't hold on any longer he pushed himself sideways as hard as he could and rolled into a ball as he hit the ground, rolling, rolling away from the pounding hooves.

What a day, he thought, as he started furiously coughing dust up out of his lungs. He hadn't had a day as bad as this since the Earth had been blown up. He staggered up to his knees , and then up to his feet and started to run away. He didn't know what from or what to, but running away seemed a prudent move.

He ran straight into Ford Prefect who was standing there surveying the scene.

`Look,' said Ford. `That is precisely what we need.'

Arthur coughed up some more dust, and wiped some other dust out of his hair and eyes. He turned, panting, to look at what Ford was looking at.

It didn't look much like the domain of a King, or the King, or any kind of King. It looked quite inviting though.

First, the context. This was a desert world. The dusty earth was packed hard and had neatly bruised every last bit of Arthur that hadn't already been bruised by the festivities of the previous night. Some way ahead of them were great cliffs that looked like sandstone, eroded by the wind and what little rain presumably fell in those parts into wild and fantastic shapes, which matched the fantastic shapes of the giant cacti that sprouted here and there from the arid, orange landscape.

For a moment Arthur dared to hope they had unexpectedly arrived in Arizona or New Mexico or maybe South Dakota, but there was plenty of evidence that this was not the case.

The Perfectly Normal Beasts, for a start, still thundering, still pounding. They swept up in their tens of thousands from the far horizon, disappeared completely for about half a mile, then swept off, thundering and pounding to the distant horizon opposite.

Then there were the spaceships parked in front of the Bar & Grill. Ah. The Domain of the King Bar & Grill. Bit of an anti-climax, thought Arthur to himself.

In fact only one of the spaceships was parked in front of the Domain of the King Bar & Grill. The other three were in a parking lot by the side of the Bar and Grill. It was the one in front that caught the eye, though. Wonderful looking thing. Wild fins all over it, far, far too much chrome all over the fins and most of the actual bodywork painted in a shocking pink. It crouched there like an immense brooding insect and looked as if it was at any moment about to jump on something about a mile away.

The Domain of the King Bar & Grill was slap bang in the middle of where the Perfectly Normal Beasts would be charging if they didn't take a minor transdimensional diversion on the way. It stood on its own, undisturbed. An ordinary Bar & Grill. A truckstop diner. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Quiet. The Domain of the King.

`Gonna buy that spaceship,' said Ford quietly.

`Buy it?' said Arthur. `That's not like you. I thought you usually pinched them.'

`Sometimes you have to show a little respect,' said Ford.

`Probably have to show a little cash as well,' said Arthur. `How the hell much is that thing worth?'

With a tiny movement, Ford brought his Dine-O-Charge credit card up out of his pocket. Arthur noticed that the hand holding it was trembling very slightly.

`I'll teach them to make me the restaurant critic...' breathed Ford.

`What do you mean?' asked Arthur.

`I'll show you,' said Ford with a nasty glint in his eye.

`Let's go and run up a few expenses shall we?'

`Couple beers,' said Ford, `and, I dunno, a couple bacon rolls, whatever you got, oh and that pink thing outside.'

He flipped his card on the top of the bar and looked around casually.

There was a kind of silence.

There hadn't been a lot of noise before, but there was definitely a kind of silence now. Even the distant thunder of the Perfectly Normal Beasts carefully avoiding the Domain of the King seemed suddenly a little muted.

`Just rode into town,' said Ford as if nothing was odd about that or about anything else. He was leaning against the bar at an extravagantly relaxed angle.

There were about three other customers in the place, sitting at tables, nursing beers. About three. Some people would say there were exactly three, but it wasn't that kind of a place, not the kind of a place that you felt like being that specific in. There was some big guy setting up some stuff on the little stage as well. Old drum kit. Couple guitars. Country and Western kind of stuff.

The barman was not moving very swiftly to get in Ford's order. In fact he wasn't moving at all.

`Not sure that the pink thing's for sale,' he said at last in the kind of accent that went on for quite a long time.

`Sure it is,' said Ford. `How much you want?'

`Well...'

`Think of a number, I'll double it.'

`T'ain't mine to sell,' said the barman.

`So, whose?'

The barman nodded at the big guy setting up on the stage. Big fat guy, moving slow, balding.

Ford nodded. He grinned.

`OK,' he said. `Get the beers, get the rolls. Keep the tab open.'

Arthur sat at the bar and rested. He was used to not knowing what was going on. He felt comfortable with it. The beer was pretty good and made him a little sleepy which he didn't mind at all. The bacon rolls were not bacon rolls. They were Perfectly Normal Beast rolls. He exchanged a few professional roll-making remarks with the barman and just let Ford get on with whatever Ford wanted to do.

`OK,' said Ford, returning to his stool. `It's cool. We got the pink thing.'

The barman was very surprised. `He's selling it to you?'

`He's giving it to us for free,' said Ford, taking a gnaw at his roll. `Hey, no, keep the tab open though. We have some items to add to it. Good roll.'

He took a deep pull of beer.

`Good beer,' he added. `Good ship too,' he said, eying the big pink and chrome insect-like thing, bits of which could be seen through the windows of the bar. `Good everything, pretty much. You know, he said, sitting back, reflectively, `it's at times like this that you kind of wonder if it's worth worrying about the fabric of space/time and the causal integrity of the multi-dimensional probability matrix and the potential collapse of all wave forms in the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash and all that sort of stuff that's been bugging me. Maybe I feel that what the big guy says is right. Just let it all go. What does it matter? Let it go.'

`Which big guy?' said Arthur.

Ford just nodded towards the stage. The big guy was saying `one two' into the mike a couple of times. Couple other guys were on the stage now. Drums. Guitar.

The barman, who had been silent for a moment or two, said, `You say he's letting you have his ship?'

`Yeah,' said Ford. `Let it all go is what he said. Take the ship. Take it with my blessing. Be good to her. I will he good to her.'

He took a pull at his beer again.

`Like I was saying,' he went on. `It's at times like this that you kind of think, let it all go. But then you think of guys like InfiniDim Enterprises and you think, they are not going to get away with it. They are going to suffer. It is my sacred and holy duty to see those guys suffer. Here, let me put something on the tab for the singer. I asked for a special request and we agreed. It's to go on the tab. OK?'

`OK,' said the barman, cautiously. Then he shrugged. `OK, however you want to do it. How much?'

Ford named a figure. The barman fell over amongst the bottles and glasses. Ford vaulted quickly over the bar to check that he was all right and help him back up to his feet. He'd cut his finger and his elbow a bit and was feeling a little woozy but was otherwise fine. The big guy started to sing. The barman hobbled off with Ford's credit card to get authorisation.

`Is there stuff going on here that I don't know about?' said Arthur to Ford.

`Isn't there usually?' said Ford.

`No need to be like that,' said Arthur. He began to wake up. `Shouldn't we be going?' he said suddenly. `Will that ship get us to Earth?'

`Sure will,' said Ford.

`That's where Random will be going!' said Arthur with a start. `We can follow her! But... er...'

Ford let Arthur get on with thinking things out for himself while he got out his old edition of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

`But where are we on the probability axis thing?' said Arthur. `Will the Earth be there or not there? I spent so much time looking for it. All I found was planets that were a bit like it or not at all like it, though it was clearly the right place because of the continents. The worst version was called NowWhat where I got bitten by some wretched little animal. That's how they communicated, you know, by biting each other. Bloody painful. Then half the time, of course, the Earth isn't even there because it's been blown up by the bloody Vogons. How much sense am I making?'

Ford didn't comment. He was listening to something. He passed the Guide over to Arthur and pointed at the screen. The active entry read `Earth. Mostly harmless.'

`You mean it's there!' said Arthur excitedly. `The Earth is there! That's where Random will be going! The bird was showing her the Earth in the rainstorm!'

Ford motioned Arthur to shout a little less loudly. He was listening.

Arthur was growing impatient. He'd heard bar singers sing `Love Me Tender' before. He was a bit surprised to hear it here, right in the middle of wherever the hell this was, certainly not Earth, but then things tended not to surprise him these days as much as formerly. The singer was quite good, as bar singers went, if you liked that sort of thing, but Arthur was getting fretful.

He glanced at his watch. This only served to remind. him that he didn't have his watch any more. Random had it, or at least the remains of it.

`Don't you think we should be going?' he said, insistently.

`Shhh!' said Ford. `I paid to hear this song.' He seemed to have tears in his eyes, which Arthur found a bit disturbing. He'd never seen Ford moved by anything other than very, very strong drink. Probably the dust. He waited, tapping his fingers irritably, out of time with the music.

The song ended. The singer went on to do `Heartbreak Hotel'.

`Anyway,' Ford whispered, `I've got to review the restaurant.'

`What?'

`I have to write a review.'

`Write a review? Of this place?'

`Filing the review validates the expenses claim. I've fixed it so that it happens completely automatically and untraceably. This bill is going to need some validation,' he added quietly, staring into his beer with a nasty smirk.

`For a couple of beers and a roll?'

`And a tip for the singer.'

`Why, how much did you tip him?'

Ford named a figure again.

`I don't know how much that is,' said Arthur. `What's it worth in pounds sterling? What would it buy you?'

`It would probably buy you, roughly... er...' Ford screwed his eyes up as he did some calculations in his head. `Switzerland,' he said at last. He picked up his Hitch Hiker's Guide and started to type.

Arthur nodded intelligently. There were times when he wished he understood what on earth Ford was talking about, and other times, like now, when he felt it was probably safer not even to try. He looked over Ford's shoulder. `This isn't going to take long, is it?' he said.

`Nah,' said Ford. `Piece of piss. Just mention that the rolls were quite good, the beer good and cold, local wildlife nicely eccentric, the bar singer the best in the known universe, and that's about it. Doesn't need much. Just a validation.'

He touched an area on the screen marked ENTER and the message vanished into the Sub-Etha.

`You thought the singer was pretty good then?'

`Yeah,' said Ford. The barman was returning with a piece of paper, which seemed to be trembling in his hand.

He pushed it over to Ford with a kind of nervous, reverential twitch.

`Funny thing,' said the barman. `The system rejected it first couple times. Can't say it surprised me.' Beads of sweat were standing on his brow. `Then suddenly it's, oh yeah, that's OK, and the system... er, validates it. Just like that. You wanna ...sign it?'

Ford scanned the form quickly. He sucked his teeth. `This is going to hurt InfiniDim a lot,' he said, with an appearance of concern. `Oh well,' he added softly, `screw 'em.'

He signed with a flourish and handed it back to the barman.

`More money,' he said, `than the Colonel made for him in an entire career of doing crap movies and casino gigs. Just for doing what he does best. Standing up and singing in a bar. And he negotiated it himself. I think this is a good moment for him. Tell him I said thanks and buy him a drink.' He tossed a few coins on the bar. The barman pushed them away.

`I don't think that's necessary,' he said, slightly hoarsely.

`Tis to me,' said Ford. `OK, we are outa here.'

They stood out in the heat and the dust and looked at the big pink and chrome thing with amazement and admiration. Or at least, Ford looked at it with amazement and admiration.

Arthur just looked at it. `You don't think it's a bit overdone, do you?'

He said it again when they climbed inside it. The seats and quite a lot of the controls were covered in fine fur skin or suede. There was a big gold monogram on the main control panel which just read `EP'.

`You know,' said Ford as he fired up the ship's engines, `I asked him if it was true that he had been abducted by aliens, and you know what he said?'

`Who?' said Arthur.

`The King.'

`Which King? Oh, we've had this conversation, haven't we?'

`Never mind,' said Ford. `For what it's worth, he said, no. He went of his own accord.'

`I'm still not sure who we're talking about,' said Arthur. Ford shook his head. `Look,' he said, `there are some tapes over in the compartment to your left. Why don't you choose some music and put it on?'

`OK,' said Arthur, and flipped through the cartons. `Do you like Elvis Presley?' he said.

`Yeah I do as a matter of fact,' said Ford. `Now. I hope this machine can leap like it looks Like it can.' He engaged the main drive.

`Yeeehaah!' shouted Ford as they shot upwards at face-tearing speed.

It could.


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