"Hello? Yes? Megadodo Publications, home of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the most totally remarkable book in the whole of the known Universe, can I help you?" said the large pink-winged insect into one of the seventy phones lined up along the vast chrome expanse of the reception desk in the foyer of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy offices. It fluttered its wings and rolled its eyes. It glared at all the grubby people cluttering up the foyer, soiling the carpets and leaving dirty handmarks on the upholstery. It adored working for the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it just wished there was some way of keeping all the hitch-hikers away. Weren't they meant to be hanging round dirty spaceports or something? It was certain that it had read something somewhere in the book about the importance of hanging round dirty spaceports. Unfortunately most of them seemed to come and hang around in this nice clean shiny foyer after hanging around in extremely dirty spaceports. And all they ever did was complain. It shivered its wings.
"What?" it said into the phone. "Yes, I passed on your message to Mr Zarniwoop, but I'm afraid he's too cool to see you right now. He's on an intergalactic cruise."
It waved a petulant tentacle at one of the grubby people who was angrily trying to engage its attention. The petulant tentacle directed the angry person to look at the notice on the wall to its left and not to interrupt an important phone call.
"Yes," said the insect, "he is in his office, but he's on an intergalactic cruise. Thank you so much for calling." It slammed down the phone.
"Read the notice," it said to the angry man who was trying to complain about one of the more ludicrous and dangerous pieces of misinformation contained in the book.
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitely inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it's always reality that's got it wrong.
This was the gist of the notice. It said "The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate."
This has led to some interesting consequences. For instance, when the Editors of the Guide were sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Traal literally (it said "Ravenous Bugblatter beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists" instead of "Ravenous Bugblatter beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists") they claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing, summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party was Life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true. The judges concurred, and in a moving speech held that Life itself was in contempt of court, and duly confiscated it from all those there present before going off to enjoy a pleasant evening's ultragolf.
Zaphod Beeblebrox entered the foyer. He strode up to the insect receptionist.
"OK," he said, "Where's Zarniwoop? Get me Zarniwoop."
"Excuse me, sir?" said the insect icily. It did not care to be addressed in this manner.
"Zarniwoop. Get him, right? Get him now."
"Well, sir," snapped the fragile little creature, "if you could be a little cool about it ..."
"Look," said Zaphod, "I'm up to here with cool, OK? I'm so amazingly cool you could keep a side of meat inside me for a month. I am so hip I have difficulty seeing over my pelvis. Now will you move before you blow it?"
"Well, if you'd let me explain, sir," said the insect tapping the most petulant of all the tentacles at its disposal, "I'm afraid that isn't possible right now as Mr Zarniwoop is on an intergalactic cruise."
Hell, thought Zaphod.
"When he's going to be back?" he said.
"Back sir? He's in his office."
Zaphod paused while he tried to sort this particular thought out in his mind. He didn't succeed.
"This cat's on an intergalactic cruise ... in his office?" He leaned forward and gripped the tapping tentacle.
"Listen, three eyes," he said, "don't you try to outweird me. I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal."
"Well, just who do you think you are, honey?" flounced the insect quivering its wings in rage, "Zaphod Beeblebrox or something?"
"Count the heads," said Zaphod in a low rasp.
The insect blinked at him. It blinked at him again.
"You are Zaphod Beeblebrox?" it squeaked.
"Yeah," said Zaphod, "but don't shout it out or they'll all want one."
"The Zaphod Beeblebrox?"
"No, just a Zaphod Beeblebrox, didn't you hear I come in six packs?"
The insect rattled its tentacles together in agitation.
"But sir," it squealed, "I just heard on the sub-ether radio report. It said that you were dead ..."
"Yeah, that's right," said Zaphod, "I just haven't stopped moving yet. Now. Where do I find Zarniwoop?"
"Well, sir, his office is on the fifteenth floor, but ..."
"But he's on an intergalactic cruise, yeah, yeah, how do I get to him."
"The newly installed Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Vertical People Transporters are in the far corner sir. But sir ..."
Zaphod was turning to go. He turned back.
"Yeah?" he said.
"Can I ask you why you want to see Mr Zarniwoop?"
"Yeah," said Zaphod, who was unclear on this point himself, "I told myself I had to."
"Come again sir?"
Zaphod leaned forward, conspirationally.
"I just materialized out of thin air in one of your cafes," he said, "as a result of an argument with the ghost of my great grandfather. No sooner had I got there that my former self, the one that operated on my brain, popped into my head and said `Go see Zarniwoop'. I have never heard of the cat. That is all I know. That and the fact that I've got to find the man who rules the Universe."
"Mr Beeblebrox, sir," said the insect in awed wonder, "you're so weird you should be in movies."
"Yeah," said Zaphod patting the thing on a glittering pink wing, "and you, baby, should be in real life."
The insect paused for a moment to recover from its agitation and then reached out a tentacle to answer a ringing phone.
A metal hand restrained it.
"Excuse me," said the owner of the metal hand in a voice that would have made an insect of a more sentimental disposition collapse in tears.
This was not such an insect, and it couldn't stand robots.
"Yes, sir," it snapped, "can I help you?"
"I doubt it," said Marvin.
"Well in that case, if you'll just excuse me ..." Six of the phones were now ringing. A million things awaited the insect's attention.
"No one can help me," intoned Marvin.
"Yes, sir, well ..."
"Not that anyone tried of course." The restraining metal hand fell limply by Marvin's side. His head hung forward very slightly.
"Is that so," said the insect tartly.
"Hardly worth anyone's while to help a menial robot is it?"
"I'm sorry, sir, if ..."
"I mean where's the percentage in being kind or helpful to a robot if it doesn't have any gratitude circuits?"
"And you don't have any?" said the insect, who didn't seem to be able to drag itself out of this conversation.
"I've never had occasion to find out," Marvin informed it.
"Listen, you miserable heap of maladjusted metal ..."
"Aren't you going to ask me what I want?"
The insect paused. Its long thin tongue darted out and licked its eyes and darted back again.
"Is it worth it?" it asked.
"Is anything?" said Marvin immediately.
"What ... do ... you ... want?"
"I'm looking for someone."
"Who?" hissed the insect.
"Zaphod Beeblebrox," said Marvin, "he's over there."
The insect shook with rage. It could hardly speak.
"Then why did you ask me?" it screamed.
"I just wanted something to talk to," said Marvin.
"Pathetic isn't it?"
With a grinding of gears Marvin turned and trundled off. He caught up with Zaphod approaching the elevators. Zaphod span round in astonishment.
"Hey ... Marvin!" he said, "Marvin! How did you get here?"
Marvin was forced to say something which came very hard to him.
"I don't know," he said.
"One moment I was sitting in your ship feeling very depressed, and the next moment I was standing here feeling utterly miserable. An Improbability Field I expect."
"Yeah," said Zaphod, "I expect my great grandfather sent you along to keep me company."
"Thanks a bundle grandad," he added to himself under his breath.
"So, how are you?" he said aloud.
"Oh, fine," said Marvin, "if you happen to like being me which personally I don't."
"Yeah, yeah," said Zaphod as the elevator doors opened.
"Hello," said the elevator sweetly, "I am to be your elevator for this trip to the floor of your choice. I have been designed by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation to take you, the visitor to the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, into these their offices. If you enjoy your ride, which will be swift and pleasurable, then you may care to experience some of the other elevators which have recently been installed in the offices of the Galactic tax department, Boobiloo Baby Foods and the Sirian State Mental Hospital, where many ex-Sirius Cybernetics Corporation executives will be delighted to welcome your visits, sympathy, and happy tales of the outside world."
"Yeah," said Zaphod, stepping into it, "what else do you do besides talk?"
"I go up," said the elevator, "or down."
"Good," said Zaphod, "We're going up."
"Or down," the elevator reminded him.
"Yeah, OK, up please."
There was a moment of silence.
"Down's very nice," suggested the elevator hopefully.
"Good," said Zaphod, "Now will you take us up?"
"May I ask you," inquired the elevator in its sweetest, most reasonable voice, "if you've considered all the possibilities that down might offer you?"
Zaphod knocked one of his heads against the inside wall. He didn't need this, he thought to himself, this of all things he had no need of. He hadn't asked to be here. If he was asked at this moment where he would like to be he would probably have said he would like to be lying on the beach with at least fifty beautiful women and a small team of experts working out new ways they could be nice to him, which was his usual reply. To this he would probably have added something passionate on the subject of food.
One thing he didn't want to be doing was chasing after the man who ruled the Universe, who was only doing a job which he might as well keep at, because if it wasn't him it would only be someone else. Most of all he didn't want to be standing in an office block arguing with an elevator.
"Like what other possibilities?" he asked wearily.
"Well," the voice trickled on like honey on biscuits, "there's the basement, the microfiles, the heating system ... er ..."
"Nothing particularly exciting," it admitted, "but they are alternatives."
"Holy Zarquon," muttered Zaphod, "did I ask for an existentialist elevator?" he beat his fists against the wall.
"What's the matter with the thing?" he spat.
"It doesn't want to go up," said Marvin simply, "I think it's afraid."
"Afraid?" cried Zaphod, "Of what? Heights? An elevator that's afraid of heights?"
"No," said the elevator miserably, "of the future ..."
"The future?" exclaimed Zaphod, "What does the wretched thing want, a pension scheme?"
At that moment a commotion broke out in the reception hall behind them. From the walls around them came the sound of suddenly active machinery.
"We can all see into the future," whispered the elevator in what sounded like terror, "it's part of our programming."
Zaphod looked out of the elevator - an agitated crowd had gathered round the elevator area, pointing and shouting.
Every elevator in the building was coming down, very fast.
He ducked back in.
"Marvin," he said, "just get this elevator go up will you? We've got to get to Zarniwoop."
"Why?" asked Marvin dolefully.
"I don't know," said Zaphod, "but when I find him, he'd better have a very good reason for me wanting to see him."
Modern elevators are strange and complex entities. The ancient electric winch and "maximum-capacity-eight-persons" jobs bear as much relation to a Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporter as a packet of mixed nuts does to the entire west wing of the Sirian State Mental Hospital.
This is because they operate on the curios principle of "defocused temporal perception". In other words they have the capacity to see dimly into the immediate future, which enables the elevator to be on the right floor to pick you up even before you knew you wanted it, thus eliminating all the tedious chatting, relaxing, and making friends that people were previously forced to do whist waiting for elevators.
Not unnaturally, many elevators imbued with intelligence and precognition became terribly frustrated with the mindless business of going up and down, up and down, experimented briefly with the notion of going sideways, as a sort of existential protest, demanded participation in the decision-making process and finally took to squatting in basements sulking.
An impoverished hitch-hiker visiting any planets in the Sirius star system these days can pick up easy money working as a counsellor for neurotic elevators.
At the fifteenth floor the elevator doors opened quickly.
"Fifteenth," said the elevator, "and remember, I'm only doing this because I like your robot."
Zaphod and Marvin bundled out of the elevator which instantly snapped its doors shut and dropped as fast as its mechanism would take it.
Zaphod looked around warily. The corridor was deserted and silent and gave no clue as to where Zarniwoop might be found. All the doors that led off the corridor were closed and unmarked.
They were standing close to the bridge which led across from one tower of the building to the other. Through a large window the brilliant sun of Ursa Minor Beta threw blocks of light in which danced small specks of dust. A shadow flitted past momentarily.
"Left in the lurch by a lift," muttered Zaphod, who was feeling at his least jaunty.
They both stood and looked in both directions.
"You know something?" said Zaphod to Marvin.
"More that you can possibly imagine."
"I'm dead certain this building shouldn't be shaking," Zaphod said.
It was just a light tremor through the soles of his feet - and another one. In the sunbeams the flecks of dust danced more vigorously. Another shadow flitted past.
Zaphod looked at the floor.
"Either," he said, not very confidently, "they've got some vibro system for toning up your muscles while you work, or ..."
He walked across to the window and suddenly stumbled because at that moment his Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive sunglasses had turned utterly black. A large shadow flitted past the window with a sharp buzz.
Zaphod ripped off his sunglasses, and as he did so the building shook with a thunderous roar. He leapt to the window.
"Or," he said, "this building's being bombed!"
Another roar cracked through the building.
"Who in the Galaxy would want to bomb a publishing company?" asked Zaphod, but never heard Marvin's reply because at that moment the building shook with another bomb attack. He tried to stagger back to the elevator - a pointless manoeuvre he realized, but the only one he could think of.
Suddenly, at the end of the corridor leading at right angles from this one, he caught sight of a figure as it lunged into view, a man. The man saw him.
"Beeblebrox, over here!" he shouted.
Zaphod eyed him with distrust as another bomb blast rocked the building.
"No," called Zaphod, "Beeblebrox over here! Who are you?"
"A friend!" shouted back the man. He ran towards Zaphod.
"Oh yeah?" said Zaphod, "Anyone's friend in particular, or just generally well disposed of people?"
The man raced along the corridor, the floor bucking beneath his feet like an excited blanket. He was short, stocky and weatherbeaten and his clothes looked as if they'd been twice round the Galaxy and back with him in them.
"Do you know," Zaphod shouted in his ear when he arrived, "your building's being bombed?"
The man indicated his awareness.
It suddenly stopped being light. Glancing round at the window to see why, Zaphod gaped as a huge sluglike, gunmetal-green spacecraft crept through the air past the building. Two more followed it.
"The government you deserted is out to get you, Zaphod," hissed the man, "they've sent a squadron of Frogstar Fighters."
"Frogstar Fighters!" muttered Zaphod, "Zarquon!"
"You get the picture?"
"What are Frogstar Fighters?" Zaphod was sure he'd heard someone talk about them when he was President, but he never paid much attention to official matters.
The man was pulling him back through a door. He went with him. With a searing whine a small black spider-like object shot through the air and disappeared down the corridor.
"What was that?" hissed Zaphod.
"Frogstar Scout robot class A out looking for you," said the man.
From the opposite direction came a larger black spider-like object. It zapped past them.
"And that was ...?"
"A Frogstar Scout robot class B out looking for you."
"And that?" said Zaphod, as a third one seared through the air.
"A Frogstar Scout robot class C out looking for you."
"Hey," chuckled Zaphod to himself, "pretty stupid robots eh?"
From over the bridge came a massive rumbling hum. A gigantic black shape was moving over it from the opposite tower, the size and shape of a tank.
"Holy photon, what's that?"
"A tank," said the man, "Frogstar Scout robot class D come to get you."
"Should we leave?"
"I think we should."
"Marvin!" called Zaphod.
"What do you want?"
Marvin rose from a pile of rubble further down the corridor and looked at them.
"You see that robot coming towards us?"
Marvin looked at the gigantic black shape edging forward towards them over the bridge. He looked down at his own small metal body. He looked back up at the tank.
"I suppose you want me to stop it," he said.
"Whilst you save your skins."
"Yeah," said Zaphod, "get in there!"
"Just so long," said Marvin, "as I know where I stand."
The man tugged at Zaphod's arm, and Zaphod followed him off down the corridor.
A point occurred to him about this.
"Where are we going?" he said.
"Is this any time to keep an appointment?"