"Howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl howl gargle howl gargle howl howl gargle gargle howl gargle gargle gargle howl slurrp uuuurgh should have a good time. Message repeats. This is your captain speaking, so stop whatever you're doing and pay attention. First of all I see from our instruments that we have a couple of hitchhikers aboard. Hello wherever you are. I just want to make it totally clear that you are not at all welcome. I worked hard to get where I am today, and I didn't become captain of a Vogon constructor ship simply so I could turn it into a taxi service for a load of degenerate freeloaders. I have sent out a search party, and as soon that they find you I will put you off the ship. If you're very lucky I might read you some of my poetry first.
"Secondly, we are about to jump into hyperspace for the journey to Barnard's Star. On arrival we will stay in dock for a seventy-two hour refit, and no one's to leave the ship during that time. I repeat, all planet leave is cancelled. I've just had an unhappy love affair, so I don't see why anybody else should have a good time. Message ends."
The noise stopped.
Arthur discovered to his embarrassment that he was lying curled up in a small ball on the floor with his arms wrapped round his head. He smiled weakly.
"Charming man," he said. "I wish I had a daughter so I could forbid her to marry one ..."
"You wouldn't need to," said Ford. "They've got as much sex appeal as a road accident. No, don't move," he added as Arthur began to uncurl himself, "you'd better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It's unpleasantly like being drunk."
"What's so unpleasant about being drunk?"
"You ask a glass of water."
Arthur thought about this.
"Ford," he said.
"What's this fish doing in my ear?"
"It's translating for you. It's a Babel fish. Look it up in the book if you like."
He tossed over The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and then curled himself up into a foetal ball to prepare himself for the jump.
At that moment the bottom fell out of Arthur's mind.
His eyes turned inside out. His feet began to leak out of the top of his head.
The room folded flat about him, spun around, shifted out of existence and left him sliding into his own navel.
They were passing through hyperspace.
"The Babel fish," said The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy not from its carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.
"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
"The argument goes something like this: `I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
"`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
"`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.
"`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
"Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best- selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God.
"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloddier wars than anything else in the history of creation."
Arthur let out a low groan. He was horrified to discover that the kick through hyperspace hadn't killed him. He was now six light years from the place that the Earth would have been if it still existed.
Visions of it swam sickeningly through his nauseated mind. There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket before and felt a sudden stab - the supermarket was gone, everything in it was gone. Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson's Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind - his mind, stuck here in this dank smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.
England no longer existed. He'd got that - somehow he'd got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger.
He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother.
He jerked himself violently to his feet.
Ford looked up from where he was sitting in a corner humming to himself. He always found the actual travelling-through-space part of space travel rather trying.
"Yeah?" he said.
"If you're a researcher on this book thing and you were on Earth, you must have been gathering material on it."
"Well, I was able to extend the original entry a bit, yes."
"Let me see what it says in this edition then, I've got to see it."
"Yeah OK." He passed it over again.
Arthur grabbed hold of it and tried to stop his hands shaking. He pressed the entry for the relevant page. The screen flashed and swirled and resolved into a page of print. Arthur stared at it.
"It doesn't have an entry!" he burst out.
Ford looked over his shoulder.
"Yes it does," he said, "down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just under Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6."
Arthur followed Ford's finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it still didn't register, then his mind nearly blew up.
"What? Harmless? Is that all it's got to say? Harmless! One word!"
"Well, there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy, and only a limited amount of space in the book's microprocessors," he said, "and no one knew much about the Earth of course."
"Well for God's sake I hope you managed to rectify that a bit."
"Oh yes, well I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but it's still an improvement."
"And what does it say now?" asked Arthur.
"Mostly harmless," admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.
"Mostly harmless!" shouted Arthur.
"What was that noise?" hissed Ford.
"It was me shouting," shouted Arthur.
"No! Shut up!" said Ford. I think we're in trouble."
"You think we're in trouble!"
Outside the door were the sounds of marching feet.
"The Dentrassi?" whispered Arthur.
"No, those are steel tipped boots," said Ford.
There was a sharp ringing rap on the door.
"Then who is it?" said Arthur.
"Well," said Ford, "if we're lucky it's just the Vogons come to throw us in to space."
"And if we're unlucky?"
"If we're unlucky," said Ford grimly, "the captain might be serious in his threat that he's going to read us some of his poetry first ..."