A thin whine filled the air. It whirled and howled through the trees upsetting the squirrels. A few birds flew off in disgust. The noise danced and skittered round the clearing. It whooped, it rasped, it generally offended.
The Captain, however, regarded the lone bagpiper with an indulgent eye. Little could disturb his equanimity; indeed, once he had got over the loss of his gorgeous bath during that unpleasantness in the swamp all those months ago he had begun to find his new life remarkably congenial. A hollow had been scooped out of a large rock which stood in the middle of the clearing, and in this he would bask daily whilst attendants sloshed water over him. Not particularly warm water, it must be said, as they hadn't yet worked out a way of heating it. Never mind, that would come, and in the meantime search parties were scouring the countryside far and wide for a hot spring, preferably one in a nice leafy glade, and if it was near a soap mine - perfection. To those who said that they had a feeling soap wasn't found in mines, the Captain had ventured to suggest that perhaps that was because no one had looked hard enough, and this possibility had been reluctantly acknowledged.
No, life was very pleasant, and the greatest thing about it was that when the hot spring was found, complete with leafy glade en suite, and when in the fullness of time the cry came reverberating across the hills that the soap mine had been located and was producing five hundred cakes a day it would be more pleasant still. It was very important to have things to look forward to.
Wail, wail, screech, wail, howl, honk, squeak went the bagpipes, increasing the Captain's already considerable pleasure at the thought that any moment now they might stop. That was something he looked forward to as well.
What else was pleasant, he asked himself? Well, so many things: the red and gold of the trees, now that autumn was approaching; the peaceful chatter of scissors a few feet from his bath where a couple of hairdressers were exercising their skills on a dozing art director and his assistant; the sunlight gleaming off the six shiny telephones lined up along the edge of his rock-hewn bath. The only thing nicer than a phone that didn't ring all the time (or indeed at all) was six phones that didn't ring all the time (or indeed at all).
Nicest of all was the happy murmur of all the hundreds of people slowly assembling in the clearing around him to watch the afternoon committee meeting.
The Captain punched his rubber duck playfully on the beak. The afternoon committee meetings were his favourite.
Other eyes watched the assembling crowds. High in a tree on the edge of the clearing squatted Ford Prefect, lately returned from foreign climes. After his six month journey he was lean and healthy, his eyes gleamed, he wore a reindeer-skin coat; his beard was as thick and his face as bronzed as a country-rock singer's.
He and Arthur Dent had been watching the Golgafrinchans for almost a week now, and Ford had decided to stir things up a bit.
The clearing was now full. Hundreds of men and women lounged around, chatting, eating fruit, playing cards and generally having a fairly relaxed time of it. Their track suits were now all dirty and even torn, but they all had immaculately styled hair. Ford was puzzled to see that many of them had stuffed their track suits full of leaves and wondered if this was meant to be some form of insulation against the coming winter. Ford's eyes narrowed. They couldn't be interested in botany of a sudden could they?
In the middle of these speculations the Captain's voice rose above the hubbub.
"Alright," he said, "I'd like to call this meeting to some sort of order if that's at all possible. Is that alright with everybody?" He smiled genially. "In a minute. When you're all ready."
The talking gradually died away and the clearing fell silent, except for the bagpiper who seemed to be in some wild and uninhabitable musical world of his own. A few of those in his immediate vicinity threw some leaves to him. If there was any reason for this then it escaped Ford Prefect for the moment.
A small group of people had clustered round the Captain and one of them was clearly beginning to speak. He did this by standing up, clearing his throat and then gazing off into the distance as if to signify to the crowd that he would be with them in a minute.
The crowd of course were riveted and all turned their eyes on him.
A moment of silence followed, which Ford judged to be the right dramatic moment to make his entry. The man turned to speak.
Ford dropped down out of the tree.
"Hi there," he said.
The crowd swivelled round.
"Ah my dear fellow," called out the Captain, "Got any matches on you? Or a lighter? Anything like that?"
"No," said Ford, sounding a little deflated. It wasn't what he'd prepared. He decided he'd better be a little stronger on the subject.
"No I haven't," he continued, "No matches. Instead I bring you news ..."
"Pity," said the Captain, "We've all run out you see. Haven't had a hot bath in weeks."
Ford refused to be headed off.
"I bring you news," he said, "of a discovery that might interest you."
"Is it on the agenda?" snapped the man whom Ford had interrupted.
Ford smiled a broad country-rock singer smile.
"Now, come on," he said.
"Well I'm sorry," said the man huffily, "but speaking as a management consultant of many years' standing, I must insist on the importance of observing the committee structure."
Ford looked round the crowd.
"He's mad you know," he said, "this is a prehistoric planet."
"Address the chair!" snapped the management consultant.
"There isn't chair," explained Ford, "there's only a rock."
The management consultant decided that testiness was what the situation now called for.
"Well, call it a chair," he said testily.
"Why not call it a rock?" asked Ford.
"You obviously have no conception," said the management consultant, not abandoning testiness in favour of good old fashioned hauteur, "of modern business methods."
"And you have no conception of where you are," said Ford.
A girl with a strident voice leapt to her feet and used it.
"Shut up, you two," she said, "I want to table a motion."
"You mean boulder a motion," tittered a hairdresser.
"Order, order!" yapped the management consultant.
"Alright," said Ford, "let's see how you are doing." He plonked himself down on the ground to see how long he could keep his temper.
The Captain made a sort of conciliatory harrumphing noise.
"I would like to call to order," he said pleasantly, "the five hundred and seventy-third meeting of the colonization committee of Fintlewoodlewix ..."
Ten seconds, thought Ford as he leapt to his feet again.
"This is futile," he exclaimed, "five hundred and seventy-three committee meetings and you haven't even discovered fire yet!"
"If you would care," said the girl with the strident voice, "to examine the agenda sheet ..."
"Agenda rock," trilled the hairdresser happily.
"Thank you, I've made that point," muttered Ford.
"... you ... will ... see ..." continued the girl firmly, "that we are having a report from the hairdressers' Fire Development Sub-Committee today."
"Oh ... ah -" said the hairdresser with a sheepish look which is recognized the whole Galaxy over as meaning "Er, will next Tuesday do?"
"Alright," said Ford, rounding on him, "what have you done? What are you going to do? What are your thoughts on fire development?"
"Well I don't know," said the hairdresser, "All they gave me was a couple of sticks ..."
"So what have you done with them?"
Nervously, the hairdresser fished in his track suit top and handed over the fruits of his labour to Ford.
Ford held them up for all to see.
"Curling tongs," he said.
The crowd applauded.
"Never mind," said Ford, "Rome wasn't burnt in a day."
The crowd hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about, but they loved it nevertheless. They applauded.
"Well, you're obviously being totally naive of course," said the girl, "When you've been in marketing as long as I have you'll know that before any new product can be developed it has to be properly researched. We've got to find out what people want from fire, how they relate to it, what sort of image it has for them."
The crowd were tense. They were expecting something wonderful from Ford.
"Stick it up your nose," he said.
"Which is precisely the sort of thing we need to know," insisted the girl, "Do people want fire that can be applied nasally?"
"Do you?" Ford asked the crowd.
"Yes!" shouted some.
"No!" shouted others happily.
They didn't know, they just thought it was great.
"And the wheel," said the Captain, "What about this wheel thingy? It sounds a terribly interesting project."
"Ah," said the marketing girl, "Well, we're having a little difficulty there."
"Difficulty?" exclaimed Ford, "Difficulty? What do you mean, difficulty? It's the single simplest machine in the entire Universe!"
The marketing girl soured him with a look.
"Alright, Mr Wiseguy," she said, "you're so clever, you tell us what colour it should have."
The crowd went wild. One up to the home team, they thought. Ford shrugged his shoulders and sat down again.
"Almighty Zarquon," he said, "have none of you done anything?"
As if in answer to his question there was a sudden clamour of noise from the entrance to the clearing. The crowd couldn't believe the amount of entertainment they were getting this afternoon: in marched a squad of about a dozen men dressed in the remnants of their Golgafrincham 3rd Regiment dress uniforms. About half of them still carried Kill-O-Zap guns, the rest now carried spears which they struck together as they marched. They looked bronzed, healthy, and utterly exhausted and bedraggled. They clattered to a halt and banged to attention. One of them fell over and never moved again.
"Captain, sir!" cried Number Two - for he was their leader - "Permission to report sir!"
"Yes, alright Number Two, welcome back and all that. Find any hot springs?" said the Captain despondently.
"Thought you wouldn't."
Number Two strode through the crowd and presented arms before the bath.
"We have discovered another continent!"
"When was this?"
"It lies across the sea ..." said Number Two, narrowing his eyes significantly, "to the east!"
Number Two turned to face the crowd. He raised his gun above his head. This is going to be great, thought the crowd.
"We have declared war on it!"
Wild abandoned cheering broke out in all corners of the clearing - this was beyond all expectation.
"Wait a minute," shouted Ford Prefect, "wait a minute!"
He leapt to his feet and demanded silence. After a while he got it, or at least the best silence he could hope for under the circumstances: the circumstances were that the bagpiper was spontaneously composing a national anthem.
"Do we have to have the piper?" demanded Ford.
"Oh yes," said the Captain, "we've given him a grant."
Ford considered opening this idea up for debate but quickly decided that that way madness lay. Instead he slung a well judged rock at the piper and turned to face Number Two.
"War?" he said.
"Yes!" Number Two gazed contemptuously at Ford Prefect.
"On the next continent?"
"Yes! Total warfare! The war to end all wars!"
"But there's no one even living there yet!"
Ah, interesting, thought the crowd, nice point.
Number Two's gaze hovered undisturbed. In this respect his eyes were like a couple of mosquitos that hover purposefully three inches from your nose and refuse to be deflected by arm thrashes, fly swats or rolled newspapers.
"I know that," he said, "but there will be one day! So we have left an open-ended ultimatum."
"And blown up a few military installations."
The Captain leaned forward out of his bath.
"Military installations Number Two?" he said.
For a moment the eyes wavered.
"Yes sir, well potential military installations. Alright ... trees."
The moment of uncertainty passed - his eyes flickered like whips over his audience.
"And," he roared, "we interrogated a gazelle!"
He flipped his Kill-O-Zap gun smartly under his arm and marched off through the pandemonium that had now erupted throughout the ecstatic crowd. A few steps was all he managed before he was caught up and carried shoulder high for a lap of honour round the clearing.
Ford sat and idly tapped a couple of stones together.
"So what else have you done?" he inquired after the celebrations had died down.
"We have started a culture," said the marketing girl.
"Oh yes?" said Ford.
"Yes. One of our film producers is already making a fascinating documentary about the indigenous cavemen of the area."
"They're not cavemen."
"They look like cavemen."
"Do they live in caves?"
"They live in huts."
"Perhaps they're having their caves redecorated," called out a wag from the crowd.
Ford rounded on him angrily.
"Very funny," he said, "but have you noticed that they're dying out?"
On their journey back, Ford and Arthur had come across two derelict villages and the bodies of many natives in the woods, where they had crept away to die. Those that still lived were stricken and listless, as if they were suffering some disease of the spirit rather than the body. They moved sluggishly and with an infinite sadness. Their future had been taken away from them.
"Dying out!" repeated Ford. "Do you know what that means?"
"Er ... we shouldn't sell them any life insurance?" called out the wag again.
Ford ignored him, and appealed to the whole crowd.
"Can you try and understand," he said, "that it's just since we've arrived that they've started dying out!"
"In fact that comes over terribly well in this film," said the marketing girl, "and just gives it that poignant twist which is the hallmark of the really great documentary. The producer's very committed."
"He should be," muttered Ford.
"I gather," said the girl, turning to address the Captain who was beginning to nod off, "that he wants to make one about you next, Captain."
"Oh really?" he said, coming to with a start, "that's awfully nice."
"He's got a very strong angle on it, you know, the burden of responsibility, the loneliness of command ..."
The Captain hummed and hahed about this for a moment.
"Well, I wouldn't overstress that angle, you know," he said finally, "one's never alone with a rubber duck."
He held the duck aloft and it got an appreciative round from the crowd.
All the while, the Management Consultant had been sitting in stony silence, his finger tips pressed to his temples to indicate that he was waiting and would wait all day if it was necessary.
At this point he decided he would not wait all day after all, he would merely pretend that the last half hour hadn't happened.
He rose to his feet.
"If," he said tersely, "we could for a moment move on to the subject of fiscal policy ..."
"Fiscal policy!" whooped Ford Prefect, "Fiscal policy!"
The Management Consultant gave him a look that only a lungfish could have copied.
"Fiscal policy ..." he repeated, "that is what I said."
"How can you have money," demanded Ford, "if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn't grow on trees you know."
"If you would allow me to continue ..."
Ford nodded dejectedly.
"Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich."
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
"But we have also," continued the Management Consultant, "run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship's peanut."
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The Management Consultant waved them down.
"So in order to obviate this problem," he continued, "and effectively revaluate the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and ... er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."
The crowd seemed a little uncertain about this for a second or two until someone pointed out how much this would increase the value of the leaves in their pockets whereupon they let out whoops of delight and gave the Management Consultant a standing ovation. The accountants amongst them looked forward to a profitable Autumn.
"You're all mad," explained Ford Prefect.
"You're absolutely barmy," he suggested.
"You're a bunch of raving nutters," he opined.
The tide of opinion started to turn against him. What had started out as excellent entertainment had now, in the crowd's view, deteriorated into mere abuse, and since this abuse was in the main directed at them they wearied of it.
Sensing this shift in the wind, the marketing girl turned on him.
"Is it perhaps in order," she demanded, "to inquire what you've been doing all these months then? You and that other interloper have been missing since the day we arrived."
"We've been on a journey," said Ford, "We went to try and find out something about this planet."
"Oh," said the girl archly, "doesn't sound very productive to me."
"No? Well have I got news for you, my love. We have discovered this planet's future."
Ford waited for this statement to have its effect. It didn't have any. They didn't know what he was talking about.
"It doesn't matter a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys what you all choose to do from now on. Burn down the forests, anything, it won't make a scrap of difference. Your future history has already happened. Two million years you've got and that's it. At the end of that time your race will be dead, gone and good riddance to you. Remember that, two million years!"
The crowd muttered to itself in annoyance. People as rich as they had suddenly become shouldn't be obliged to listen to this sort of gibberish. Perhaps they could tip the fellow a leaf or two and he would go away.
They didn't need to bother. Ford was already stalking out of the clearing, pausing only to shake his head at Number Two who was already firing his Kill-O-Zap gun into some neighbouring trees.
He turned back once.
"Two million years!" he said and laughed.
"Well," said the Captain with a soothing smile, "still time for a few more baths. Could someone pass me the sponge? I just dropped it over the side."