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So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish tuhgttg-4, Page 2

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  The new barman didn’t believe in the supernatural or poltergeists or anything kooky like that, he just knew an useful ally when he saw one. The hand sat on the bar. It took orders, it served drinks, it dealt murderously with people who behaved as if they wanted to be murdered. Ford Prefect sat still.

  “We are not worried about the expiration date,” repeated the barman, satisfied that he now had Ford Prefect’s full attention. “We are worried about the entire piece of plastic.”

  “What?” said Ford. He seemed a little taken aback.

  “This,” said the barman, holding out the card as if it was a small fish whose soul had three weeks earlier winged its way to the Land Where Fish are Eternally Blessed, “we don’t accept it.”

  Ford wondered briefly whether to raise the fact that he didn’t have any other means of payment on him, but decided for the moment to soldier on. The disembodied hand was now grasping his shoulder lightly but firmly between its finger and thumb.

  “But you don’t understand,” said Ford, his expression slowly ripening from a little taken abackness into rank incredulity. “This is the American Express Card. It is the finest way of settling bills known to man. Haven’t you read their junk mail?”

  The cheery quality of Ford’s voice was beginning to grate on the barman’s ears. It sounded like someone relentlessly playing the kazoo during one of the more sombre passages of a War Requiem.

  One of the bones in Ford’s shoulder began to grate against another one of the bones in his shoulder in a way which suggested that the hand had learnt the principles of pain from a highly skilled chiropracter. He hoped he could get this business settled before the hand started to grate one of the bones in his shoulder against any of the bones in different parts of his body. Luckily, the shoulder it was holding was not the one he had his satchel slung over.

  The barman slid the card back across the bar at Ford.

  “We have never,” he said with muted savagery, “heard of this thing.”

  This was hardly surprising.

  Ford had only acquired it through a serious computer error towards the end of the fifteen years’ sojourn he had spent on the planet Earth. Exactly how serious, the American Express Company had got to know very rapidly, and the increasingly strident and panic-stricken demands of its debt collection department were only silenced by the unexpected demolition of the entire planet by the Vogons to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.

  He had kept it ever since because he found it useful to carry a form of currency that no one would accept.

  “Credit?” he said. “Aaaargggh…”

  These two words were usually coupled together in the Old Pink Dog Bar.

  “I thought,” gasped Ford, “that this was meant to be a class establishment…”

  He glanced around at the motley collection of thugs, pimps and record company executives that skulked on the edges of the dim pools of light with which the dark shadows of the bar’s inner recesses were pitted. They were all very deliberately looking in any direction but his now, carefully picking up the threads of their former conversations about murders, drug rings and music publishing deals. They knew what would happen now and didn’t want to watch in case it put them off their drinks.

  “You gonna die, boy,” the barman murmured quietly at Ford Prefect, and the evidence was on his side. The bar used to have one of those signs hanging up which said, “Please don’t ask for credit as a punch in the mouth often offends”, but in the interest of strict accuracy this was altered to, “Please don’t ask for credit because having your throat torn out by a savage bird while a disembodied hand smashes your head against the bar often offends”. However, this made an unreadable mess of the notice, and anyway didn’t have the same ring to it, so it was taken down again. It was felt that the story would get about of its own accord, and it had.

  “Lemme look at the bill again,” said Ford. He picked it up and studied it thoughtfully under the malevolent gaze of the barman, and the equally malevolent gaze of the bird, which was currently gouging great furrows in the bar top with its talons.

  It was a rather lengthy piece of paper.

  At the bottom of it was a number which looked like one of those serial numbers you find on the underside of stereo sets which always takes so long to copy on to the registration form. He had, after all, been in the bar all day, he had been drinking a lot of stuff with bubbles in it, and he had bought an awful lot of rounds for all the pimps, thugs and record executives who suddenly couldn’t remember who he was.

  He cleared his throat rather quietly and patted his pockets. There was, as he knew, nothing in them. He rested his left hand lightly but firmly on the half-opened flap of his satchel. The disembodied hand renewed its pressure on his right shoulder.

  “You see,” said the barman, and his face seemed to wobble evilly in front of Ford’s, “I have a reputation to think of. You see that, don’t you?”

  This is it, thought Ford. There was nothing else for it. He had obeyed the rules, he had made a bona fide attempt to pay his bill, it had been rejected. He was now in danger of his life.

  “Well,” he said quietly, “if it’s your reputation…”

  With a sudden flash of speed he opened his satchel and slapped down on the bar top his copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the official card which said that he was a field researcher for the Guide and absolutely not allowed to do what he was now doing.

  “Want a write-up?”

  The barman’s face stopped in mid-wobble. The bird’s talons stopped in mid-furrow. The hand slowly released its grip.

  “That,” said the barman in a barely audible whisper, from between dry lips, “will do nicely, sir.”

  Chapter 5

  The Hitchhiker’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 muck 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.


  “Good number.”

  “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 o
n 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.