The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a powerful organ. Indeed, its influence is so prodigious that strict rules have had to be drawn up by its editorial staff to prevent its misuse. So none of its field researchers are allowed to accept any kind of services, discounts or preferential treatment of any kind in return for editorial favours unless:
a) they have made a bona fide attempt to pay for a service in the normal way;
b) their lives would be otherwise in danger;
c) they really want to.
Since invoking the third rule always involved giving the editor a cut, Ford always preferred to much about with the first two.
He stepped out along the street, walking briskly.
The air was stifling, but he liked it because it was stifling city air, full of excitingly unpleasant smells, dangerous music and the sound of warring police tribes.
He carried his satchel with an easy swaying motion so that he could get a good swing at anybody who tried to take it from him without asking. It contained everything he owned, which at the moment wasn't much.
A limousine careered down the street, dodging between the piles of burning garbage, and frightening an old pack animal which lurched, screeching, out of its way, stumbled against the window of a herbal remedies shop, set off a wailing alarm, blundered off down the street, and then pretended to fall down the steps of a small pasta restaurant where it knew it would get photographed and fed.
Ford was walking north. He thought he was probably on his way to the spaceport, but he had thought that before. He knew he was going through that part of the city where people's plans often changed quite abruptly.
"Do you want to have a good time?" said a voice from a doorway.
"As far as I can tell," said Ford, "I'm having one. Thanks."
"Are you rich?" said another.
This made Ford laugh.
He turned and opened his arms in a wide gesture. "Do I look rich?" he said.
"Don't know," said the girl. "Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you'll get rich. I have a very special service for rich people ..."
"Oh yes?" said Ford, intrigued but careful. "And what's that?"
"I tell them it's OK to be rich."
Gunfire erupted from a window high above them, but it was only a bass player getting shot for playing the wrong riff three times in a row, and bass players are two a penny in Han Dold City.
Ford stopped and peered into the dark doorway.
"You what?" he said.
The girl laughed and stepped forward a little out of the shadow. She was tall, and had that kind of self-possessed shyness which is a great trick if you can do it.
"It's my big number," she said. "I have a Master's degree in Social Economics and can be very convincing. People love it. Especially in this city."
"Goosnargh," said Ford Prefect, which was a special Betelgeusian word he used when he knew he should say something but didn't know what it should be.
He sat on a step, took from his satchel a bottle of that Ol' Janx Spirit and a towel. He opened the bottle and wiped the top of it with the towel, which had the opposite effect to the one intended, in that the Ol' Janx Spirit instantly killed off millions of the germs which had been slowly building up quite a complex and enlightened civilization on the smellier patches of the towel.
"Want some?" he said, after he'd had a swig himself.
She shrugged and took the proffered bottle.
They sat for a while, peacefully listening to the clamour of burglar alarms in the next block.
"As it happens, I'm owed a lot of money," said Ford, "so if I ever get hold of it, can I come and see you then maybe?"
"Sure, I'll be here," said the girl. "So how much is a lot?"
"Fifteen years' back pay."
"Writing two words."
"Zarquon," said the girl. "Which one took the time?"
"The first one. Once I'd got that the second one just came one afternoon after lunch."
A huge electronic drum kit hurtled through the window high above them and smashed itself to bits in the street in front of them.
It soon became apparent that some of the burglar alarms on the next block had been deliberately set off by one police tribe in order to lay an ambush for the other. Cars with screaming sirens converged on the area, only to find themselves being picked off by copters which came thudding through the air between the city's mountainous tower blocks.
"In fact," said Ford, having to shout now above the din, "it wasn't quite like that. I wrote an awful lot, but they just cut it down."
He took his copy of the Guide back out of his satchel.
"Then the planet got demolished," he shouted. "Really worthwhile job, eh? They've still got to pay me, though."
"You work for that thing?" the girl yelled back.
"You want to see the stuff I wrote?" he shouted. "Before it gets erased? The new revisions are due to be released tonight over the net. Someone must have found out that the planet I spent fifteen years on has been demolished by now. They missed it on the last few revisions, but it can't escape their notice for ever."
"It's getting impossible to talk isn't it?"
She shrugged and pointed upwards.
There was a copter above them now which seemed to be involved in a side skirmish with the band upstairs. Smoke was billowing from the building. The sound engineer was hanging out of the window by his fingertips, and a maddened guitarist was beating on his fingers with a burning guitar. The helicopter was firing at all of them.
"Can we move?"
They wandered down the street, away from the noise. They ran into a street theatre group which tried to do a short play for them about the problems of the inner city, but then gave up and disappeared into the small restaurant most recently patronized by the pack animal.
All the time, Ford was poking at the interface panel of the Guide. They ducked into an alleyway. Ford squatted on a garbage can while information began to flood over the screen of the Guide.
He located his entry.
"Earth: Mostly harmless."
Almost immediately the screen became a mass of system messages.
"Here it comes," he said.
"Please wait," said the messages. "Entries are being updated over the Sub.Etha Net. This entry is being revised. The system will be down for ten seconds."
At the end of the alley a steel grey limousine crawled past.
"Hey look," said the girl, "if you get paid, look me up. I'm a working girl, and there are people over there who need me. I gotta go."
She brushed aside Ford's half-articulated protests, and left him sitting dejectedly on his garbage can preparing to watch a large swathe of his working life being swept away electronically into the ether.
Out in the street things had calmed down a little. The police battle had moved off to other sectors of the city, the few surviving members of the rock band had agreed to recognize their musical differences and pursue solo careers, the street theatre group were re-emerging from the pasta restaurant with the pack animal, telling it they would take it to a bar they knew where it would be treated with a little respect, and a little way further on the steel grey limousine was parked silently by the kerbside.
The girl hurried towards it.
Behind her, in the darkness of the alley, a green flickering glow was bathing Ford Prefect's face, and his eyes were slowly widening in astonishment.
For where he had expected to find nothing, an erased, closed-off entry, there was instead a continuous stream of data - text, diagrams, figures and images, moving descriptions of surf on Australian beaches, Yoghurt on Greek islands, restaurants to avoid in Los Angeles, currency deals to avoid in Istanbul, weather to avoid in London, bars to go everywhere. Pages and pages of it. It was all there, everything he had written.
With a deepening frown of blank incomprehension he went backwards and forwards through it, stopping here and there at various entries.
"Tips for aliens in New York: Land anywhere, Central Park, anywhere. No one will care, or indeed even notice.
"Surviving: get a job as cab driver immediately. A cab driver's job is to drive people anywhere they want to go in big yellow machines called taxis. Don't worry if you don't know how the machine works and you can't speak the language, don't understand the geography or indeed the basic physics of the area, and have large green antennae growing out of your head. Believe me, this is the best way of staying inconspicuous.
"If your body is really weird try showing it to people in the streets for money.
"Amphibious life forms from any of the worlds in the Swulling, Noxios or Nausalia systems will particularly enjoy the East River, which is said to be richer in those lovely life-giving nutrients then the finest and most virulent laboratory slime yet achieved.
"Having fun: This is the big section. It is impossible to have more fun without electrocuting your pleasure centres ..."
Ford flipped the switch which he saw was now marked "Mode Execute Ready" instead of the now old-fashioned "Access Standby" which had so long ago replaced the appallingly stone-aged "Off".
This was a planet he had seen completely destroyed, seen with his own two eyes or rather, blinded as he had been by the hellish disruption of air and light, felt with his own two feet as the ground had started to pound at him like a hammer, bucking, roaring, gripped by tidal waves of energy pouring out of the loathsome yellow Vogon ships. And then at last, five seconds after the moment he had determined as being the last possible moment had already passed, the gently swinging nausea of dematerialization as he and Arthur Dent had been beamed up through the atmosphere like a sports broadcast.
There was no mistake, there couldn't have been. The Earth had definitely been destroyed. Definitely, definitely. Boiled away into space.
And yet here - he activated the Guide again - was his own entry on how you would set about having a good time in Bournemouth, Dorset, England, which he had always prided himself on as being one of the most baroque pieces of invention he had ever delivered. He read it again and shook his head in sheer wonder.
Suddenly he realized what the answer to the problem was, and it was this, that something very weird was happening; and if something very weird was happening, he thought, he wanted it to be happening to him.
He stashed the Guide back in his satchel and hurried out on to the street again.
Walking north he again passed a steel grey limousine parked by the kerbside, and from a nearby doorway he heard a soft voice saying, "It's OK, honey, it's really OK, you got to learn to feel good about it. Look at the way the whole economy is structured ..."
Ford grinned, detoured round the next block which was now in flames, found a police helicopter which was standing unattended in the street, broke into it, strapped himself in, crossed his fingers and sent it hurtling inexpertly into the sky.
He weaved terrifyingly up through the canyoned walls of the city, and once clear of them, hurtled through the black and red pall of smoke which hung permanently above it.
Ten minutes later, with all the copter's sirens blaring and its rapid-fire cannon blasting at random into the clouds, Ford Prefect brought it careering down among the gantries and landing lights at Han Dold spaceport, where it settled like a gigantic, startled and very noisy gnat.
Since he hadn't damaged it too much he was able to trade it in for a first class ticket on the next ship leaving the system, and settled into one of its huge, voluptuous body-hugging seats.
This was going to be fun, he thought to himself, as the ship blinked silently across the insane distances of deep space and the cabin service got into its full extravagant swing.
"Yes please," he said to the cabin attendants whenever they glided up to offer him anything at all.
He smiled with a curious kind of manic joy as he flipped again through the mysteriously re-instated entry on the planet Earth. He had a major piece of unfinished business that he would now be able to attend to, and was terribly pleased that life had suddenly furnished him with a serious goal to achieve.
It suddenly occurred to him to wonder where Arthur Dent was, and if he knew.
Arthur Dent was one thousand, four hundred and thirty-seven light years away in a Saab, and anxious.
Behind him in the backseat was a girl who had made him crack his head on the door as he climbed in. He didn't know if it was just because she was the first female of his own species that he had laid eyes on in years, or what it was, but he felt stupefied with, with ... This is absurd, he told himself. Calm down, he told himself. You are not, he continued to himself in the firmest internal voice he could muster, in a fit and rational state. You have just hitch-hiked over a hundred thousand light years across the galaxy, you are very tired, a little confused and extremely vulnerable. Relax, don't panic, concentrate on breathing deeply.
He twisted round in his seat.
"Are you sure she's all right?" he said again.
Beyond the fact that she was, to him, heartthumpingly beautiful, he could make out very little, how tall she was, how old she was, the exact shading of her hair. And nor could he ask her anything about herself because, sadly, she was completely unconscious.
"She's just drugged," said her brother, shrugging, not moving his eyes from the road ahead.
"And that's all right, is it?" said Arthur, in alarm.
"Suits me," he said.
"Ah," said Arthur. "Er," he added after a moment's thought.
The conversation so far had been going astoundingly badly.
After an initial flurry of opening hellos, he and Russell - the wonderful girl's brother's name was Russell, a name which, to Arthur's mind, always suggested burly men with blond moustaches and blow-dried hair, who would at the slightest provocation start wearing velvet tuxedos and frilly shirtfronts and would then have to be forcibly restrained from commentating on snooker matches - had quickly discovered they didn't like each other at all.
Russell was a burly man. He had a blond moustache. His hair was fine and blow dried. To be fair to him - though Arthur didn't see any necessity for this beyond the sheer mental exercise of it - he, Arthur, was looking pretty grim himself. A man can't cross a hundred thousand light years, mostly in other people's baggage compartments, without beginning to fray a little, and Arthur had frayed a lot.
"She's not a junkie," said Russell suddenly, as if he clearly thought that someone else in the car might be. "She's under sedation."
"But that's terrible," said Arthur, twisting round to look at her again. She seemed to stir slightly and her head slipped sideways on her shoulder. Her dark hair fell across her face, obscuring it.
"What's the matter with her, is she ill?"
"No," said Russell, "merely barking mad."
"What?" said Arthur, horrified.
"Loopy, completely bananas. I'm taking her back to the hospital and telling them to have another go. They let her out while she still thought she was a hedgehog."
Russell hooted his horn fiercely at the car that came round the corner towards them half-way on to their side of the road, making them swerve. The anger seemed to make him feel better.
"Well, maybe not a hedgehog," he said after he'd settled down again. "Though it would probably be simpler to deal with if she did. If somebody thinks they're a hedgehog, presumably you just give 'em a mirror and a few pictures of hedgehogs and tell them to sort it out for themselves, come down again when they feel better. At least medical science could deal with it, that's the point. Seems that's no good enough for Fenny, though."
"You know what I got her for Christmas?"
"Black's Medical Dictionary."
"I thought so. Thousands of diseases in it, all in alphabetical order."
"You say her name is Fenny?"
"Yeah. Take your pick, I said. Anything in here can be dealt with. The proper drugs can be prescribed. But no, she has to have something different. Just to make life difficult. She was like that at school, you know."
"She was. Fell over playing hockey and broke a bone nobody had ever heard of."
"I can see how that would be irritating," said Arthur doubtfully. He was rather disappointed to discover her name was Fenny. It was a rather silly, dispiriting name, such as an unlovely maiden aunt might vote herself if she couldn't sustain the name Fenella properly.
"Not that I wasn't sympathetic," continued Russell, "but it did get a bit irritating. She was limping for months."
He slowed down.
"This is your turning isn't it?"
"Ah, no," said Arthur, "five miles further on. If that's all right."
"OK," said Russell after a very tiny pause to indicate that it wasn't, and speeded up again.
It was in fact Arthur's turning, but he couldn't leave without finding out something more about this girl who seemed to have taken such a grip on his mind without even waking up. He could take either of the next two turnings.
They led back to the village that had been his home, though what he would find there he hesitated to imagine. Familiar landmarks had been flitting by, ghostlike, in the dark, giving rise to the shudders that only very very normal things can create, when seen where the mind is unprepared for them, and in an unfamiliar light.
By his own personal time scale, so far as he could estimate it, living as he had been under the alien rotations of distant suns, it was eight years since he had left, but what time had passed here he could hardly guess. Indeed, what events had passed were beyond his exhausted comprehension because this planet, his home, should not be here.
Eight years ago, at lunchtime, this planet had been demolished, utterly destroyed, by the huge yellow Vogon ships which had hung in the lunchtime sky as if the law of gravity was no more than a local regulation, and breaking it no more than a parking offence.
"Delusions," said Russell.
"What?" said Arthur, started out of his train of thought.
"She says she suffers from strange delusions that she's living in the real world. It's no good telling her that she is living in the real world because she just says that's why the delusions are so strange. Don't know about you, but I find that kind of conversation pretty exhausting. Give her the tablets and piss off for a beer is my answer. I mean you can only muck about so much can't you?"
Arthur frowned, not for the first time.
"And all this dreams and nightmare stuff. And the doctors going on about strange jumps in her brainwave patterns."
"This," said Fenny.
Arthur whirled round in his seat and stared into her suddenly open but utterly vacant eyes. Whatever she was looking at wasn't in the car. Her eyes fluttered, her head jerked once, and then she was sleeping peacefully.
"What did she say?" he asked anxiously.
"She said `this'."
"This what? How the heck should I know? This hedgehog, that chimney pot, the other pair of Don Alfonso's tweezers. She's barking mad, I thought I'd mentioned that."
"You don't seem to care very much." Arthur tried to say it as matter-of-factly as possible but it didn't seem to work.
"Look, buster ..."
"OK, I'm sorry. It's none of my business. I didn't mean it to sound like that," said Arthur. "I know you care a lot, obviously," he added, lying. "I know that you have to deal with it somehow. You'll have to excuse me. I just hitched from the other side of the Horsehead Nebula."
He stared furiously out of the window.
He was astonished that of all the sensations fighting for room in his head on this night as he returned to the home that he had thought had vanished into oblivion for ever, the one that was compelling him was an obsession with this bizarre girl of whom he knew nothing other than that she had said "this" to him, and that he wouldn't wish her brother on a Vogon.
"So, er, what were the jumps, these jumps you mentioned?" he went on to say as quickly as he could.
"Look, this is my sister, I don't even know why I'm talking to you about ..."
"OK, I'm sorry. Perhaps you'd better let me out. This is ..."
At the moment he said it, it became impossible, because the storm which had passed them by suddenly erupted again. Lightning belted through the sky, and someone seemed to be pouring something which closely resembled the Atlantic Ocean over them through a sieve.
Russell swore and steered intently for a few seconds as the sky blattered at them. He worked out his anger by rashly accelerating to pass a lorry marked "McKeena's All-Weather Haulage". The tension eased as the rain subsided.
"It started with all that business of the CIA agent they found in the reservoir, when everybody had all the hallucinations and everything, you remember?"
Arthur wondered for a moment whether to mention again that he had just hitch-hiked back from the other side of the Horsehead Nebula and was for this and various other related and astounding reasons a little out of touch with recent events, but he decided it would only confuse matters further.
"No," he said.
"That was the moment she cracked up. She was in a cafe somewhere. Rickmansworth. Don't know what she was doing there, but that was where she cracked up. Apparently she stood up, calmly announced that she had undergone some extraordinary revelation or something, wobbled a bit, looked confused, and finally collapsed screaming into an egg sandwich."
Arthur winced. "I'm very sorry to hear that," he said a little stiffly.
Russell made a sort of grumping noise.
"So what," said Arthur in an attempt to piece things together, "was the CIA agent doing in the reservoir?"
"Bobbing up and down of course. He was dead."
"But what ..."
"Come on, you remember all that stuff. The hallucinations. Everyone said it was a cock up, the CIA trying experiments into drug warfare or something. Some crackpot theory that instead of invading a country it would be much cheaper and more effective to make everyone think they'd been invaded."
"What hallucinations were those exactly ...?" said Arthur in a rather quiet voice.
"What do you mean, what hallucinations? I'm talking about all that stuff with the big yellow ships, everyone going crazy and saying we're going to die, and then pop, they vanished as the effect wore off. The CIA denied it which meant it must be true."
Arthur's head went a little swimmy. His hand grabbed at something to steady himself, and gripped it tightly. His mouth made little opening and closing movements as if it was on his mind to say something, but nothing emerged.
"Anyway," continued Russell, "whatever drug it was it didn't seem to wear off so fast with Fenny. I was all for suing the CIA, but a lawyer friend of mine said it would be like trying to attack a lunatic asylum with a banana, so ..." He shrugged.
"The Vogon ..." squeaked Arthur. "The yellow ships ... vanished?"
"Well, of course they did, they were hallucinations," said Russell, and looked at Arthur oddly. "You trying to say you don't remember any of this? Where have you been for heaven's sake?"
This was, to Arthur, such an astonishingly good question that he half-leapt out of his seat with shock.
"Christ!!!" yelled Russell, fighting to control the car which was suddenly trying to skid. He pulled it out of the path of an oncoming lorry and swerved up on to a grass bank. As the car lurched to a halt, the girl in the back was thrown against Russell's seat and collapsed awkwardly.
Arthur twisted round in horror.
"Is she all right?" he blurted out.
Russell swept his hands angrily back through his blow-dried hair. He tugged at his blond moustache. He turned to Arthur.
"Would you please," he said, "let go of the handbrake?"