Life, the Universe and Everything
The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.
It wasn’t just that the cave was cold, it wasn’t just that it was damp and smelly. It was that the cave was in the middle of Islington and there wasn’t a bus due for two million years.
Time is the worst place, so to speak, to get lost in, as Arthur Dent could testify, having been lost in both time and space a good deal. At least being lost in space kept you busy.
He was stranded on prehistoric Earth as the result of a complex sequence of events that had involved his being alternately blown up and insulted in more bizarre regions of the Galaxy than he had ever dreamed existed, and though life had now turned very, very, very quiet, he was still feeling jumpy.
He hadn’t been blown up now for five years.
He had hardly seen anyone since he and Ford Prefect had parted company four years previously, and he hadn’t been insulted in all that time either.
Except just once.
It had happened on a spring evening about two years ago.
He was returning to his cave just a little after dusk when he became aware of lights flashing eerily through the clouds. He turned and stared, with hope suddenly clambering through his heart. Rescue. Escape. The castaway’s impossible dream—a ship.
And as he watched, as he stared in wonder and excitement, a long silver ship descended through the warm evening air, quietly, without fuss, its long legs unlocking in a smooth ballet of technology.
It alighted gently on the ground, and what little hum it had generated died away, as if lulled by the evening calm.
A ramp extended itself.
Light streamed out.
A tall figure appeared silhouetted in the hatchway. It walked down the ramp and stood in front of Arthur.
“You’re a jerk, Dent,” it said simply.
It was alien, very alien. It had a peculiar alien tallness, a peculiar alien flattened head, peculiar slitty little alien eyes, extravagantly draped golden robes with a peculiarly alien collar design, and pale gray green alien skin that had that lustrous sheen about it that most gray green races can acquire only with plenty of exercise and very expensive soap.
Arthur boggled at it.
It gazed levelly at him.
Arthur’s first sensations of hope and trepidation had instantly been overwhelmed by astonishment, and all sorts of thoughts were battling for the use of his vocal cords at this moment.
“Whh …?” he said.
“Bu … hu … uh …” he added.
“Ru … ra … wah … who?” he managed finally to say and lapsed into a frantic kind of silence. He was feeling the effects of not having said anything to anybody for as long as he could remember.
The alien creature frowned briefly and consulted what appeared to be some species of clipboard that it was holding in its thin and spindly alien hand.
“Arthur Dent?” it said.
Arthur nodded helplessly.
“Arthur Philip Dent?” pursued the alien in a kind of efficient yap.
“Er … er … yes … er … er,” confirmed Arthur.
“You’re a jerk,” repeated the alien, “a complete kneebiter.”
The creature nodded to itself, made a peculiar alien check on its clipboard and turned briskly back toward its ship.
“Er …” said Arthur desperately, “er …”
“Don’t give me that,” snapped the alien. It marched up the ramp, through the hatchway and disappeared into its ship. The ship sealed itself. It started to make a low throbbing hum.
“Er, hey!” shouted Arthur, and started to run helplessly toward it.
“Wait a minute!” he called. “What is this? What? Wait a minute!”
The ship rose, as if shedding its weight like a cloak falling to the ground, and hovered briefly. It swept strangely up into the evening sky. It passed up through the clouds, illuminating them briefly, and then was gone, leaving Arthur alone in an immensity of land dancing a helplessly tiny little dance.
“What?” he screamed. “What? What? Hey, what? Come back here and say that!”
He jumped and danced until his legs trembled, and shouted till his lungs rasped. There was no answer from anyone. There was no one to hear him or speak to him.
The alien ship was already thundering toward the upper reaches of the atmosphere, on its way out into the appalling void that separates the very few things there are in the Universe from one another.
Its occupant, the alien with the expensive complexion, leaned back in its single seat. His name was Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. He was a man with a purpose. Not a very good purpose, as he would have been the first to admit, but it was at least a purpose, and it did at least keep him on the move.
Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged was—indeed, is—one of the Universe’s very small number of immortal beings.
Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards. He had had his immortality inadvertently thrust upon him by an unfortunate accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch and a pair of rubber bands. The precise details of the accident are not important because no one has ever managed to duplicate the exact circumstances under which it happened, and many people have ended up looking very silly, or dead, or both, trying.
Wowbagger closed his eyes in a grim and weary expression, put some light jazz on the ship’s stereo, and reflected that he could have made it if it hadn’t been for Sunday afternoons, he really could have done.
To begin with it was fun; he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.
In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.
So things began to pall for him. The merry smiles he used to wear at other people’s funerals began to fade. He began to despise the Universe in general, and everybody in it in particular.
This was the point at which he conceived his purpose, the thing that would drive him on, and which, as far as he could see, would drive him on forever. It was this.
He would insult the Universe.
That is, he would insult everybody in it. Individually, personally, one by one, and (this was the thing he really decided to grit his teeth over) in alphabetical order.
When people protested to him, as they sometimes had done, that the plan was not merely misguided but actually impossible because of the number of people being born and dying all the time, he would merely fix them with a steely look and say, “A man can dream, can’t he?”
And so he had started out. He equipped a spaceship that was built to last with a computer capable of handling all the data processing involved in keeping track of the entire population of the known Universe and working out the horrifically complicated routes involved.
His ship fled through the inner orbits of the Sol star system, preparing to slingshot around the sun and fling itself out into interstellar space.
“Computer,” he said.
“Here,” yipped the computer.
Wowbagger gazed for a moment at the fantastic jewelry of the night, the billions of tiny diamond worlds that dusted the infinite darkness with light. Every one, every single one was on his itinerary. Most of them he would be going to millions of times over.
He imagined for a moment his itinerary connecting all the dots in the sky like a child’s numbered dots puzzle. He hoped that from some vantage point in the Universe it might be seen to spell a very, very rude word.