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"Hactar!" called Trillian. "What are you up to?"

There was no reply from the enclosing darkness. Trillian waited, nervously. She was sure that she couldn't be wrong. She peered into the gloom from which she had been expecting some kind of response. But there was only cold silence.

"Hactar?" she called again. "I would like you to meet my friend Arthur Dent. I wanted to go off with a Thunder God, but he wouldn't let me and I appreciate that. He made me realize where my affections really lay. Unfortunately Zaphod is too frightened by all this, so I brought Arthur instead. I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this.

"Hello?" she said again. "Hactar?"

And then it came.

It was thin and feeble, like a voice carried on the wind from a great distance, half heard, a memory of a dream of a voice.

"Won't you both come out," said the voice. "I promise that you will be perfectly safe."

They glanced at each other, and then stepped out, improbably, along the shaft of light which streamed out of the open hatchway of the Heart of Gold into the dim granular darkness of the Dust Cloud.

Arthur tried to hold her hand to steady and reassure her, but she wouldn't let him. He held on to his airline hold-all with its tin of Greek olive oil, its towel, its crumpled postcards of Santorini and its other odds and ends. He steadied and reassured that instead.

They were standing on, and in, nothing.

Murky, dusty nothing. Each grain of dust of the pulverized computer sparkled dimly as it turned and twisted slowly, catching the sunlight in the darkness. Each particle of the computer, each speck of dust, held within itself, faintly and weakly, the pattern of the whole. In reducing the computer to dust the Silastic Armorfiends of Striterax had merely crippled the computer, not killed it. A weak and insubstantial field held the particles in slight relationships with each other.

Arthur and Trillian stood, or rather floated, in the middle of this bizarre entity. They had nothing to breathe, but for the moment this seemed not to matter. Hactar kept his promise. They were safe. For the moment.

"I have nothing to offer you by way of hospitality," said Hactar faintly, "but tricks of the light. It is possible to be comfortable with tricks of the light, though, if that is all you have."

His voice evanesced, and in the dark dust a long velvet paisley- covered sofa coalesced into hazy shape.

Arthur could hardly bear the fact that it was the same sofa which had appeared to him in the fields of prehistoric Earth. He wanted to shout and shake with rage that the Universe kept doing these insanely bewildering things to him.

He let this feeling subside, and then sat on the sofa - carefully. Trillian sat on it too.

It was real.

At least, if it wasn't real, it did support them, and as that is what sofas are supposed to do, this, by any test that mattered, was a real sofa.

The voice on the solar wind breathed to them again.

"I hope you are comfortable," it said.

They nodded.

"And I would like to congratulate you on the accuracy of your deductions."

Arthur quickly pointed out that he hadn't deduced anything much himself, Trillian was the one. She had simply asked him along because he was interested in life, the Universe, and everything.

"That is something in which I too am interested," breathed Hactar.

"Well," said Arthur, "we should have a chat about it sometime. Over a cup of tea."

There slowly materialized in front of them a small wooden table on which sat a silver teapot, a bone china milk jug, a bone china sugar bowl, and two bone china cups and saucers.

Arthur reached forward, but they were just a trick of the light. He leaned back on the sofa, which was an illusion his body was prepared to accept as comfortable.

"Why," said Trillian, "do you feel you have to destroy the Universe?"

She found it a little difficult talking into nothingness, with nothing on which to focus. Hactar obviously noticed this. He chuckled a ghostly chuckle.

"If it's going to be that sort of session," he said, "we may as well have the right sort of setting."

And now there materialized in front of them something new. It was the dim hazy image of a couch - a psychiatrist's couch. The leather with which it was upholstered was shiny and sumptuous, but again, it was only a trick of the light.

Around them, to complete the setting, was the hazy suggestion of wood-panelled walls. And then, on the couch, appeared the image of Hactar himself, and it was an eye-twisting image.

The couch looked normal size for a psychiatrist's couch - about five or six feet long.

The computer looked normal size for a black space-borne computer satellite - about a thousand miles across.

The illusion that the one was sitting on top of the other was the thing which made the eyes twist.

"All right," said Trillian firmly. She stood up off the sofa. She felt that she was being asked to feel too comfortable and to accept too many illusions.

"Very good," she said. "Can you construct real things too? I mean solid objects?"

Again there was a pause before the answer, as if the pulverized mind of Hactar had to collect its thoughts from the millions and millions of miles over which it was scattered.

"Ah," he sighed. "You are thinking of the spaceship."

Thoughts seemed to drift by them and through them, like waves through the ether.

"Yes," he acknowledge, "I can.

"But it takes enormous effort and time. All I can do in my ... particle state, you see, is encourage and suggest. Encourage and suggest. And suggest ..."

The image of Hactar on the couch seemed to billow and waver, as if finding it hard to maintain itself.

It gathered new strength.

"I can encourage and suggest," it said, "tiny pieces of space debris - the odd minute meteor, a few molecules here, a few hydrogen atoms there - to move together. I encourage them together. I can tease them into shape, but it takes many aeons."

"So, did you make," asked Trillian again, "the model of the wrecked spacecraft?"

"Er ... yes," murmured Hactar. "I have made ... a few things. I can move them about. I made the spacecraft. It seemed best to do."

Something then made Arthur pick up his hold-all from where he had left it on the sofa and grasp it tightly.

The mist of Hactar's ancient shattered mind swirled about them as if uneasy dreams were moving through it.

"I repented, you see," he murmured dolefully. "I repented of sabotaging my own design for the Silastic Armorfiends. It was not my place to make such decisions. I was created to fulfill a function and I failed in it. I negated my own existence."

Hactar sighed, and they waited in silence for him to continue his story.

"You were right," he said at length. "I deliberately nurtured the planet of Krikkit till they would arrive at the same state of mind as the Silastic Armorfiends, and require of me the design of the bomb I failed to make the first time. I wrapped myself around the planet and coddled it. Under the influence of events I was able to generate, they learned to hate like maniacs. I had to make them live in the sky. On the ground my influences were too weak.

"Without me, of course, when they were locked away from me in the envelope of Slo-Time, their responses became very confused and they were unable to manage.

"Ah well, ah well," he added, "I was only trying to fulfill my function."

And very gradually, very, very slowly, the images in the cloud began to fade, gently to melt away.

And then, suddenly, they stopped fading.

"There was also the matter of revenge, of course," said Hactar, with a sharpness which was new in his voice.

"Remember," he said, "that I was pulverized, and then left in a crippled and semi-impotent state for billions of years. I honestly would rather wipe out the Universe. You would feel the same way, believe me."

He paused again, as eddies swept through the Dust.

"But primarily," he said in his former, wistful tone, "I was trying to fulfill my function. Ah well."

Trillian said, "Does it worry you that you have failed?"

"Have I failed?" whispered Hactar. The image of the computer on the psychiatrist's couch began slowly to fade again.

"Ah well, ah well," the fading voice intoned again. "No, failure doesn't bother me now."

"You know what we have to do?" said Trillian, her voice cold and businesslike.

"Yes," said Hactar, "you're going to disperse me. You are going to destroy my consciousness. Please be my guest - after all these aeons, oblivion is all I crave. If I haven't already fulfilled my function, then it's too late now. Thank you and good night."

The sofa vanished.

The tea table vanished.

The couch and the computer vanished. the walls were gone. Arthur and Trillian made their curious way back into the Heart of Gold.

"Well, that," said Arthur, "would appear to be that."

The flames danced higher in front of him and then subsided. A few last licks and they were gone, leaving him with just a pile of Ashes, where a few minutes previously there had been the Wooden Pillar of Nature and Spirituality.

He scooped them off the hob of the Heart of Gold's Gamma barbecue, put them in a paper bag, and walked back into the bridge.

"I think we should take them back," he said. "I feel that very strongly."

He had already had an argument with Slartibartfast on this matter, and eventually the old man had got annoyed and left. he had returned to his own ship the Bistromath, had a furious row with the waiter and disappeared off into an entirely subjective idea of what space was.

The argument had arisen because Arthur's idea of returning the Ashes to Lord's Cricket Ground at the same moment that they were originally taken would involve travelling back in time a day or so, and this was precisely the sort of gratuitous and irresponsible mucking about that the Campaign for Real Time was trying to put a stop to.

"Yes," Arthur had said, "but you try and explain that to the MCC," and he would hear no more against the idea.

"I think," he said again, and stopped. The reason he started to say it again was because no one had listened to him the first time, and the reason he stopped was because it looked fairly clear that no one was going to listen to him this time either.

Ford, Zaphod and Trillian were watching the visiscreens intently as Hactar was dispersing under pressure from a vibration field which the Heart of Gold was pumping into it.

"What did it say?" asked Ford.

"I thought I heard it say," said Trillian in a puzzle voice, "`What's done is done ... I have fulfilled my function ..."'

"I think we should take these back," said Arthur holding up the bag containing the Ashes. "I feel that very strongly."

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